Four years after his successful revival of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride at Trafalgar Studios, Jamie Lloyd brings the writer’s second play to the same venue – but with more mixed results. Apologia is a more traditional work in which long-festering family resentments come to the surface as the sparkling wine loosens inhibitions at a supposedly celebratory dinner party – a somewhat overused trope – which exposes deep inter-generational conflict. The scenario seems a bit contrived, but ultimately this bleakly funny domestic drama played out on Soutra Gilmour’s naturalistic kitchen diner set hits home with real poignancy.
Renowned left-wing, feminist art historian Kristin Miller has invited her two sons and their partners, plus an old hippy friend, for a birthday meal. Her older son Peter, an international banker, brings his American fiancée Trudi, an evangelical Christian physiotherapist, to meet his mother. But her younger son’s girlfriend Claire, a TV soap actress, arrives alone, with Simon himself eventually turning up dishevelled and distraught late at night. The omission in Kristin’s recently published memoir of any mention of her family acts as a catalyst for a big bust-up in which her sons accuse her of putting her political causes before their own welfare when growing up.
We have a pretty good inkling early on that the evening is not going to go well when Kristin says that the oven in which she was going to cook a chicken isn’t working, and there isn’t much else to eat. Domesticity is not her strong point. She is openly suspicious of the authenticity of a Liberian mask that Trudi has bought her as a present, and aghast when she finds out that Peter met her at a prayer meeting – religion apparently being even worse than his work involving the capitalist exploitation of developing countries. But Kristin is egalitarian in her insults: she also lambasts Claire for buying a two-thousand-pound designer dress and pours withering scorn on her sell-out acting career.
These sharp exchanges, however, are mere pleasantries compared with Kristin’s run-ins with her sons. The autobiography’s publication inflames their resentment of her, bringing back memories of what they see as her abandonment of them as children ‒ after their parents had separated, she allowed her estranged husband (now dead) to take them from her without fighting for their custody so they only saw her occasionally. The more angrily assertive Peter tells her she is not fit to be a mother, while the aimless, depressed Simon confronts her with the psychological damage she has done by not being there for him when a boy.
Kristin’s book is entitled ‘Apologia’ – which as she points out means a defence not an apology for the life she has led. Part of the baby-boomer generation, Kristin was highly active in the radical late sixties, demonstrating against the Vietnam War, campaigning for women’s rights and so on. It seems that in her concerted efforts on behalf of a more humane society she neglected the two individuals most in need of her love. Campbell finally shows the emotional cost to Kristin as well as her sons, but there is an awkward suggestion that it is impossible to be both a political activist and a good mother.
Apologia has been slightly revised for this production, including adjustments to make Kristin American, to accommodate her being played by the multi-award-winning Hollywood and Broadway actress Stockard Channing. Channing delivers the many acid put-downs uttered by her character – who has most of the best one-liners – with superbly dry relish, while allowing her ‘carapace’, or mask, to slip eventually to movingly reveal a sad loneliness.
Originally written for two actors, the script has also been amended so that the brothers are now played by one actor, Joseph Millson, who excels in contrasting Peter’s self-confident directness with Simon’s subdued, more obliquely accusing manner – especially in his disturbing reminiscence of a night in Genoa when he was picked up by a man after his mother did not meet him at the station.
Laura Carmichael follows on from her assured performance as the Mistress in Lloyd’s production Genet’s The Maids here last year with another impressive display as the naïve and clumsily well-intentioned Trudi, who turns out to be the most understanding and likeable character. Freema Agyeman also does well as the cheekily high-spirited Claire who is not as superficial as she may at first appear. And Desmond Barrit gets big laughs with some of his camp asides as Kristin’s fellow counter-culture veteran, Hugh, who also has the significant role of vouching for her genuinely inspirational qualities as a social reformer – no apologies necessary.
Apologia is on at the Trafalgar Studios until 18 November 2017. Click here for more details.