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Apologia review at Trafalgar Studios, London – ‘Stockard Channing is on top form’

Stockard Channing in Apologia. Photo: Marc Brenner Stockard Channing in Apologia. Photo: Marc Brenner
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The most knowing laugh in this revival of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 2009 play Apologia has come with the passing of time.

While defending the principle of progress, Trudi (Laura Carmichael) points out to the formidable Kristin (Stockard Channing) that America has inaugurated its first African-American president. Kristin dryly replies that things change.

This is one of many lines that the Tony award-winning Channing takes full advantage of in her return to the West End after a break of 10 years. She brings a droll intelligence to art historian Kristin – a 60s activist and first-wave feminist jaded by what she sees as the world’s backslide from her ideals. Channing has you fear for anyone in her sights.

Initially, each of the guests at her increasingly disastrous birthday dinner are targets. But Campbell’s writing – in between bouts of sharp farce – is bigger, thornier and sadder than that. At the play’s heart is the tragedy of being at the front-line of radicalism, of the sacrifices to pave the way for future generations that benefit but never fully understand. The absence of any mention of her sons – guests at the dinner along with their respective partners – in Kristin’s memoir is something they can’t forgive.

Director Jamie Lloyd is reunited with Campbell after they worked together at Trafalgar Studios on The Pride in 2013. His staging shifts deftly from people talking over each other to quiet confrontations, one-on-one. An early exception is Kristin’s explanation to Trudi of why Italian painter Giotto matters. Subtly emphasised by designer Jon Clark’s softening lighting, Channing gives Kristin’s hymn to humanism a lulling power and stillness.

Nervously navigating Kristin, the cast squabble around designer Soutra Gilmour’s beautifully realised kitchen set. They all bring something to the table, metaphorically and literally.

Joseph Millson (here on double duty as both of Kristin’s sons) particularly impresses as Simon – finding an aching clarity in his character’s brokenness. Meanwhile, ex-Doctor Who star Freema Agyeman makes her stage debut as Claire, Simon’s girlfriend and a TV actress who hasn’t done much theatre. It’s the kind of fourth-wall-break casting that could invite unkind comments. But Agyeman acquits herself well – if perhaps a little shoutily – as Claire rails against Kristin’s heat-seeking snideness about her career.

However, it’s Carmichael who – released from the corsets of Downton Abbey – almost steals the show from Channing. She’s superb as American physiotherapist Trudi, turning the uptick lilt of every nervous platitude into comedy gold. At the same time, she doesn’t undersell her character. She’s the only one who truly listens to Kristin. They meet across the divide.

Apologia is Campbell’s third play and it has the hallmarks of an early work. It sometimes puts too fine a point on things and can’t resist coming back to say it again. But, aided by Lloyd’s direction, it’s also funny, defiant and moving.

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Stockard Channing is on top form in Jamie Lloyd’s revival of this sharply funny, thought-provoking look at ideals and their legacy