The latest production at the Trafalgar Studios had all the indicators that it would be something special. It’s the latest play by the brilliant Alexi Kaye Campbell, directed by Jamie Lloyd and a show that would see the return to the London stage of Stockard Channing (best known for television roles in The West Wing and The Good Wife and film roles including Rizzo in Grease), as well as a promising supporting cast, including Freema Agyeman.
Having now seen the production, I can say that it more than lived up to my expectations, proving to be a powerful, emotional exploration of a family and how the choices and secrets of one member, in this case, the matriarch, can impact on the others.
For those wondering, Apologia means a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct, not, as Kristin Miller (played by Channing) points out, an apology. An eminent art historian, Kristin’s memoir has just been published and as her family gathers to celebrate her birthday, it becomes clear that neither of her sons is particularly happy about her book. Apologia may not mean apology, but that’s exactly what her sons want from the mother they feel abandoned them as children to focus on her work.
Set in England, in 2009, the play certainly gives its audience lots to think about through Alexi Kaye Campbell’s writing. What sacrifices are acceptable for us to make in life? Why is it that a mother putting her career first seems so much more unacceptable than a father? Does the modern generation take for granted the freedoms we enjoy thanks to the fights and activism of those older generations? These are just a few of the questions I had running through my mind during my trip to this play.
Kristin is a fantastic, multi-faceted character and Channing is phenomenal in the role, giving one of the finest stage performances I have seen all year. She is complex, being both rather cold and unlikeable, but also, by the play’s end, rather sympathetic. The fact she isn’t straightforward only makes her more compelling to watch, as we learn about a woman who enjoyed huge career success, was a staunch political activist and yet, despite all her achievements, lost a closeness she could have had with her children as a result of circumstance she felt were out of her control. The role requires an actress who is able to be funny, sarcastic, cruel, detached and yet also caring and Channing brings her to life in all these respects, stirring your emotions and bringing a tear to the eye.
What makes this production all the more exciting for the audience is that it isn’t all about Stockard Channing. All of the other actors are excellent. Laura Carmichael (better known as Lady Edith in Downton Abbey) is superb as Trudi, the warm-hearted American girlfriend of Kristin’s son Peter. She brings a lot of the warmth and kindness to the play and just like the audience, she is learning about this family’s dynamic as events unfold around her. Carmichael also has a lovely chemistry with Channing and I particularly liked their final scene together.
For Doctor Who fans, this production also sees the stage debut of Freema Agyeman (who played Martha Jones). She too is excellent as Claire, the girlfriend of Kristin’s other son Simon. The polar opposite of Trudi, she is harder and feistier, more than willing to stand up to Kristin and tell her exactly what she thinks of her and her life choices. As the play unfolds, we learn more about Claire too and I found it fascinating that she may be more like Kristin than she realises – both strong, independent women, whose careers have helped them to make something more of their lives.
Kristin’s relationship with her two sons is pivotal to the play and indeed to most of the characters’ lives and I loved the fact that they were both played by Joseph Millson, who is able to portray two very different men, whose lack of a mother when they were young has affected them in varying ways as they have reached adulthood. By having the same actor play both roles, they very much feel like two halves of a whole and Channing and Millson’s chemistry is clearly strengthened as a result of the emotional scenes they have to play together.
Apologia could have been at risk of being rather heavy, yet Alexi Kaye Campbell has written a good deal of humour into the play too, a lot of which comes via the addition to the party of Kristin’s old friend Hugh. He has known her for decades and knows better than anyone who she is and the sacrifices she made and is, perhaps, the person she allows herself to truly open up to. He also has a wonderful, naughty sense of humour and Desmond Barrit is superb in every scene (as well as delivering the funniest lines in the play).
Soutra Gilmour has created a lovely shoebox-style, one-roomed set, that feels very organic and lived in. I found myself wishing I could set foot in it and take in all the little details and there is some wonderful lighting by Jon Clark, which only adds to the mood and emotional impact of certain moments.
This is a hugely impressive production and whether you choose to see it for the playwright, director or indeed any of its tremendous cast, you will not be disappointed. I urge you to book tickets while you can.
Apologia continues its run at the Trafalgar Studios until 18th November 2017. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (including an interval). For more information visit ATG’s website here: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/apologia/trafalgar-studios/
Thanks to Doctor Who Magazine, Doctor Who fans can also enjoy a 25% discount on all performances until 16th September via the promo code “MARTHA”