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Stuart King

Review: APOLOGIA at Trafalgar Studios

APOLOGIA - Freema Agyeman, Laura Carmichael, Joseph Millson, Desmond Baritt, Stockard Channing Among the personal possessions I've accumulated during many years of theatregoing, is a programme signed for me by Stockard Channing at the stage door of the Comedy Theatre in 1991. Back then, she was garnering plaudits for her turn as empathically naïve Ouisa Kittredge in Six Degrees of Separation. I am delighted to report that in Apologia, which has just opened at Trafalgar Studios, Channing (now aged 73), delivers an equally noteworthy performance which is set to dazzle West End audiences.

We discover the indomitable feminist Kristin (Channing), who in her youth was a hippy anti-war protestor but more recently has become a celebrated author and art historian, hovering indecisively in her kitchen. She is expecting the imminent arrival of her two sons, their respective girlfriends and an old friend and fellow banner-waver Hugh, who are invited for her birthday dinner. With an oven on the blink and no advance warning that one girlfriend is vegan, Kristin is under pressure and unprepared.

These matters soon pale into insignificance however, when measured against the bitter recriminations unleashed by both sons in response to the recent publication of her memoirs, from which they have been conspicuously omitted. Peter and Simon are both hurt and angry yet express themselves in distinctly different ways. Joseph Millson who gets to play both parts - in separate sections of the play - is particularly effective as the more sensitive and vulnerable son in a tensely intimate stand-off with his mother. As an antidote, it was easy to understand why audience members enjoyed Desmond Barrit's turn as Hugh. His campy contributions and fruity asides during round table conversations, were delivered with the gleeful relish of a naughty schoolboy which served to break the ice of many frosty exchanges.

Alexi Kaye Campbell's play, first seen at The Bush in 2009, is a story of two halves:

The first bombards us with characters collectively intent on presenting an air of dinner party superficiality, whilst they collectively pussyfoot around the elephant in the room. In particular Channing's Kristin is afforded countless opportunities to puncture the air with stylishly timed, but brutally acerbic, witticism and criticisms. Her unwillingness to censor blunt personal observations, coupled with a determination to express judgemental opinions which she sees as truths (traits redolent of crusading intellectuals) will leave audiences both chuckling and horrified in equal measure.

The second act has a far more pensive and anxious feel, as the long-term damage resulting from Kristian's youthful actions, career choices and failings as a mother, is revealed. The overwhelming feeling is that things are now desperately beyond repair. Both girlfriends, Freema Agyeman (as Claire) and Laura Carmichael (playing Trudi) attempt to tackle this unhappy truth by challenging Kristin to look at herself. Their approaches are markedly different, and we are left to assume will have very different outcomes.

Jamie Lloyd directs his troupe of accomplished performers who breathe life and soul into a play crammed with wry humour, one liners and sometimes achingly painful reflection.

Apologia tickets