The combination of Stockard Channing and Jamie Lloyd should have been unbeatable theatrical champagne, but in Lloyd’s production of Apologia the fizz never really bursts through. Channing is formidable, astute and viciously funny, but even with superb, perhaps unexpected, character work from Laura Carmichael, Apologia is a long, dramatically unfullfilling night in the theatre.
Let’s wait and see how things turn out in the long run before we start jumping with joy.
With that remark, delivered with economic and devastating precision by Stockard Channing, the audience whoops for joy. Channing’s character, Kristin, is reflecting on whether or not the election of the first black American President should be greeted with joy. When playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell wrote this play, Barack Obama’s presidency had barely begun, so this revival, helmed by Jamie Lloyd, reaps some rewards simply by the timing of this production. Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.
But the remark is telling in a different way. The prospect of Lloyd directing Channing in this revival was genuinely pulse accelerating. Channing has, in recent years, electrified Broadway in a series of superb performances (from Pal Joey to It’s Only A Play) but she has not been seen on a West End stage for some time. Lloyd is a fabulously reliable and inventive director, and his revival of Campbell’s earlier play, The Pride, gave it fresh and potent life, mining the work with subtle skill, exposing its emotional and empathetic heft.
But, with the revival of Apologia now playing in Trafalgar Studios One, both have met their match, and while both play great hands, there are no theatrical trumps here. The flaws of the writing remain vivid and exposed. Few of the characters are likeable, or even understandable for the most part, and there are too many “types” to permit true resonance. Contrasted against the sublime The Girl From The North Country, this production of Apologia makes no case for its revival and disappoints more than it delivers. Those who, like me, jumped for joy when the production and star were announced, have learnt their lesson. (Well, I have anyway.)
Kristin is a left-wing academic and student of art and history, atheist and political activist, a woman who rejected the horrors of greedy America, embraced Europe, lost her sons in an acrimonious divorce, found a fascination for Giotti (a significant influence in the Italian Renaissance) and wrote a famous memoir about her life and achievements which made no reference to her curiously named (given her beliefs) sons, Peter and Simon. She is a woman at peace with her career but her position as matriarch is less secure.
One son, Peter, is a corporate money maker and he has travelled to his mother’s English countryside home, where appliances don’t work, to introduce her to his homespun all-American girlfriend, soon to be wife, Trudi. For Kirstin, it is contempt at first sight. The trip is also about Kristin’s birthday, so her odd, very gay old pal, Hugh, turns up as does Clare, the soap actor partner of other son, Simon, a writer with mother issues. (Are there any other kinds?) Tensions rise as the group wait for the arrival of Simon, old arguments are rehashed and new ones play out.
When Simon finally arrives, the scope for more argument is clear. But, by then, despite some immaculate work from Channing, and Laura Carmichael’s dazzlingly underplayed Trudi, interest has abated. The play is simply not sufficiently interesting or well constructed.
This is not to detract from the glories of the physical production. Lloyd’s long time design collaborator, Soutra Gilmour, produces a very authentic looking country kitchen for an American immigrant with academic tendencies. It might have been the kitchen Judi Dench would have wanted in As Time Goes By. Jon Clark’s lighting is spectacular, effortlessly evoking the light in the country and the changes as day gives way to night, by way of glorious twilight. It all seems suitably realistic and the space suffices for claustrophobic, dysfunctional family drama.
But is that the sort of production that might best make Apologia soar? Given that this high pedigree production falls short, might a more abstract production yield greater dividends?
The writing is patchy in its effectiveness. There are a lot of long speeches, some duologues, the occasional group piece – and within those moments there are really quite delicious moments. Channing delivers Kristen’s ode to Giotti with remarkable and succinct exactitude, allowing a true insight into something that really mattered to her. But, overall, there is no particularly interesting shape, no innovative style or voice. A family where ideals rail against corporeal needs is not something unknown on the stage.
Worse than that, though, the characters as written are mostly dull and uninvolving. They require really first-rate performers for sufficient interest to be generated for close attention to be paid. It is easy enough to laugh at the obvious punch-lines, the acerbic ripostes and to mentally applaud the “key character” moments as they are unveiled. Channing and Carmichael both make more of their parts than the writing probably deserves, but that is not a consistent attribute in the cast here.
Desmond Barrit plays Hugh as if he was a character form a very bad sitcom, all pursed lip simmering judgement. Is it really necessary for stereotypes of older gay men to be entrenched and reinforced? Why would a character like Kristin keep close friends with a character such as Barrit’s Hugh? Surely her disdain would overcome nostalgia? With that relationship quite unbelievable, both characters are diminished. Lloyd and Barrit could, and should, have found a different way for Hugh.
As Clare, Freema Ageyman is shrill and shouty. These are odd choices. Clare has known Kristin for some time; their rhythm should be established. It isn’t. There is little sign of brittle, sandpaper repetition in their exchanges, no sense of a shared unpleasant history. As the only “actor” in the family, Clare ought to be somehow palpably different from the others. But Ageyman brings no sense of that to the equation. She is irritating as much as her dress is white, and when the inevitable spoiling of the dress comes, it just doesn’t matter. At all.
Joseph Millson, a versatile actor, here plays both brothers. He is more effective as the broken writer than as the angry capitalist, but not as convincing in either role as he might be. Angst, especially vocally angry angst, is difficult to pull off and in the latter stages of the first Act Millson’s handling of the Peter character is more melodramatic than it should be. The silent introduction of Simon as Act One ends partly explains the acting choices, but, again, like with Barrit and Ageyman, there are better choices Lloyd should have made.
Carmichael assists Millson enormously, by making the unlikely relationship between Peter and Trudi seem whole and real. She embraces her character’s wholesome Christian background and makes it a resonant part of the character, fascinatingly making Trudi winning and adorable. She finds a way to play the stereotype against expectations and, as result, her performance soars. She stands up to everyone else in the kitchen without ever having to “stand up”; she rules from the sidelines, building her character on empathy and sincerity, mixed with dazzling surprise. She is a complete joy to watch and very far from her Downton Abbey persona.
She nearly steals the show from Channing. Nearly.
Part Lady Bracknell, part Shere Khan, part King Lear, part Gertrude, part Bette Davis, part Sophie Zawistowski, Channing’s Kristin is a mercurial, sphinx-like woman, driven by her career, broken by her marriage and riddled with guilt and pain. She is funny and acidic in equal measure, but always truthful, questioning, longing for the narcotic of family sensibility.
Her speech about Giotti was faultlessly delivered, like a strong torchlight in the darkness, spreading understanding about the pulse of Kristin. Channing establishes intellectual superiority and acuity with ease, and she is endlessly fascinating to watch – her stillness, or the movement of one eye, can speak volumes. It is difficult to take your eyes off her, despite the ravages to her appearance caused by years of adherence to the temple of plastic surgery.
Between them Channing and Carmichael make Apologia worthwhile enough. They give truly star performances and not the performances expected, either of performer or character. More of that from the rest of the cast, and Lloyd, and this might have been a worthy rival to The Ferryman, Hamlet, Ink and The Girl From The North Country.