Stockard Channing’s name on the bill is reason enough to go to the theatre. Since her stand-out performance in Grease she’s clearly been a force to be reckoned with. Her latest role as political activist, matriarch and academic Kristin in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia plays to what we think we know of her, even if that is based solely on her portrayal of Rizzo. Kristin is strong-willed, supremely confident in her own insights and always ready to speak her mind.
On the face of it a play set at a middle class dinner party (albeit taking place in the presence of the kitchen sink) discussing political activism and art may be seem a little too focused on the problems of the liberal elite. We are all invited to laugh with Kristin as she witheringly puts down some easy targets – in turn her banker son, his too-keen-to-please American girlfriend, and her other son’s apparently shallow soap actress girlfriend. But we discover as the evening progresses that Kristin’s hard-as-nails approach to life is protecting her from an unpalatable memory of how she lost her sons when they were young.
We view this as a painting, the intricately designed and dressed kitchen (set design by Soutra Gilmour) being set in a giant rectangular picture frame. Nearly all the lines of the set are straight. It’s a series of rectangles – the chairs, the table, windows – even the floor tiles. And the table is positioned across the stage so we view it as we view Leonardo’s Last Supper – surely a deliberately ironic dig at Kristen’s defiantly anti-Christian views.
There are plenty of un-forced laughs throughout the piece and Channing knows exactly how to play her lines, looks and moves to make the most of every opportunity. But this is truly an ensemble effort with robust, convincing and detailed performances across the board. Laura Carmichael quickly dispels all memories of her Downton history as an American born-again Christian; Joseph Millson plays both of Kristen’s sons and brings such clarity and distinction to each that only a glance at the programme reveals it’s the same actor; Freema Agyeman has a ball in her first stage role as a soap star trying (and succeeding) to convince herself of the value of her work; and Desmond Barrit as camp neighbour Hugh revels in the many comic lines his part offers, but never at the expense of conveying the honesty and warmth of his character.
Apologia is at the Trafalgar Studios until 18 November 2017.