By Alexi Kaye Campbell
Trafalgar Studios, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Stockard Channing, Broadway doyenne and star of The West Wing, returns to London after much too long an interval to light up the West End premiere of this play about motherhood vs idealism. Apologia first appeared at London's Bush Theatre in 2009 and is directed by young Jamie Lloyd who gave this writer's The Pride a stunning revival in this theater a few years back. Lloyd shows uncharacteristic restraint here, and for this it works.
Beating up on the '60s hippie generation for neglecting motherhood in favour of revolutionary zeal is by now a rather tired literary trope, most often indulged in by bitter middle aged male writers. Kaye Campbell drags us over these coals again with nothing new to say apart from the usual condemning of the women involved whilst letting the men of that generation off the hook.
The subject of his ire here is Kristin (Channing) a renowned art critic, American expat and notorious '60s revolutionary. We're in the kitchen of her country home where she's about to host her two sons and their partners to what will be a calamitous birthday dinner party. She has recently published a memoir, a self-justifying account of her career, that fails to even mention either of her sons. Both are rightly very hurt at this insult.
One, who to her dismay is a successful banker, has brought his American fiancée to meet her for the first time and the other is too broken to appear but arrives instead in the middle of the night, wounded and haunted, like Konstantin in The Seagull. His girlfriend, Claire, a feisty self-made soap actress whose very existence irritates the waspish Kristin, is also present. Kristin learns that her banker son has turned to religion under the guidance of his new girlfriend and that Claire has just spent £2000 on a dress. The sparks soon fly.
Kaye Campbell, previously an actor himself, writes great parts for actors and has an unerring ear for sparkling repartee. A keen craftsman, he has Coward's ability to expertly interweave moments of light relief with the dramatic tension. Most of the light relief here is provided by Kristin's ever present, camp acolyte Hugh (Desmond Barrit).
Kristin makes Edward Albee's mother-types look like Mrs Walton and, ever scornful of those who don't share her views, she bullies them with her caustic put downs. Channing is perfect casting and commands the stage. She's totally dismissive of both sons' partners, patronising the gauche Trudi and insulting Claire to her face about her lifestyle and career choices. Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith from Downton Abbey), totally believeable as an American, is wonderful as the pious and gaffe-prone Trudi and Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who's companion Martha) makes Claire into a forceful nemesis. Joseph Millson plays both sons, deftly delineating the confident banker Peter and the messed up Simon.
The play sets up strawman arguments which are even then feebly knocked down, pandering to tired prejudices about situations which were invariably more complex. Often it is only the skills of the actors that rescue their characters from being mere mouthpieces.
It is difficult to believe too that someone of Kristin's intelligence and high status would so publicly insult prospective daughters-in- law to their faces with such casual cruelty. She does after all make lofty speeches about the civilising impetus of art.
Her meek climb down after being excoriated in an all-out row with Peter doesn't convince either. This is the row he's been waiting to have all his life. Hugh's morning after speech in her defence is also watery. He pleads that concern for others was at the root of her idealism. "Look into her eyes" he begs Peter, as if that would be enough.
Much heavy weather is made of Simon's childhood encounter in Genoa Station with a man who, in the end, didn't molest him, after Kristin had failed to turn up to collect him. We learn that the boys were taken off her by the husband for a period, but of course his choices are never interrogated.
Kirstin is horrible and gets a raw deal from Kaye Campbell but one wonders, would her family have fared any better with a Mrs Walton?
READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH STOCKARD CHANNING