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West End Review: ‘Apologia’ Starring Stockard Channing

With:
Stockard Channing, Freema Agyeman, Desmond Barrit, Laura Carmichael, Joseph Millson.

Some things are best left in the past, and “Apologia,” Alexi Kaye Campbell’s ambivalent examination of baby-boomer morality and second-wave feminism is one of them. Written just after the financial crash, “Apologia” weighs its respect for the generation that changed the world against indignation over the consequences. With conventional wisdom catching up with its argument and current events surpassing its accusations, what remains is a stilted family drama that gets stuck in the past. Not even Stockard Channing’s wistful and headstrong matriarch can inject a sense of urgency into this West End revival.

Kaye Campbell’s plays often have one eye on the past. They tend to time-hop, charting long-term changes we can’t see up close. “The Pride,” his debut, compared the closeted gay men of 1950s Britain with their out-and-overproud contemporary counterparts. “The Faith Machine” shimmied pre- and post- 9/11. He shows how the world turns while we’re asleep at the wheel. History unfolds unchecked.

Even if “Apologia” sticks to the present — or, at least, 2009 when it premiered — the past makes its presence felt throughout. Kristin Miller (Channing), a successful art historian with a portrait of Marx hanging up in her chic country home, is marking her 60-somethingth birthday with family. She’s in a reflective mood, more so when presented with a photograph of her younger self at a political protest. The two women seem strangely irreconcilable: the commies and hippies that rewrote the world order in the 1960s are now living in comfort, content with their lot. Soutra Gilmour’s bougie kitchen set is dotted with potted plants and art, as if Kristin had taken natural beauty into her personal possession.

Kristin’s also written a memoir that, contentiously, makes no mention of her two sons. One, Peter, is a self-assured banker; the other, Simon, is a brittle soul with more mental health problems than money. (Both are played, deftly, by Joseph Millson.) Their partners are opposites too: a timid American Christian, all too eager to please (Laura Carmichael), and a snappy soapstar who abandoned her artistic ambitions for success and a sports car (Freema Agyeman).

It tees up a sharp clash of values. Having made her money doing something she loved and valued, Kristin sees her sons’ generation as sell-outs or failures. She’s blind to the fact that, in today’s world — the world she and her peers shaped — integrity is all too often unaffordable. Not that “Apologia” lets the kids off the hook. These apathetic, immature meeklings could have used her indomitability to topple the baby boomers in their turn.

“Apologia” frames that argument in feminist terms, pitting the gains made by women like Kristin against the loss of traditional families. Both her sons begrudge their absentee mother, who lost custody of them to their father, and Simon, in particular, is held back by events of his past. That the point only lands late on, however, means the play suddenly opens up like a clearing sky.

However, as its ideas have become commonplace — we all know about baby boomers’ betrayals by now – the structural weaknesses of “Apologia” have started to show. It’s a play with next to no narrative thrust. Its stakes take an age to turn up, and it has a whole arsenal of Chekhovian guns at its disposal: brilliant white designer dresses and identical mobiles phones. Characters are forever popping off to powder their nose or — get this — change a lightbulb, so that every pairing gets its private moment. No conversation ever really flows. No one interrupts or overlaps; there are no family in-jokes and no old jibes. People say their piece or slip into their stories, and director Jamie Lloyd’s production can feel awfully artificial as a result.

No amount of good acting can help that. Channing ensures Kristin remains inscrutable as the guilty mother: stubborn and sympathetic in equal measure. Agyeman’s actress, with her estuary accent, and Carmichael’s sickly-sweet sycophant wind her (and each other) up well enough, and Millson carefully distinguishes between the two brothers. There’s too little spark, though, and, but for the wry asides of Desmond Barrit’s gay rights activist turned gardening enthusiast, too little reason for a revival.

West End Review: 'Apologia' Starring Stockard Channing

Trafalgar Studios, London; 380 seats; £95 ($125) top. Opened, Aug. 3, 2017. Reviewed Aug. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Production: A Trafalgar Entertainment Group production of a play in two acts by Alexi Kaye Campbell.

Creative: Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Set design, Soutra Gilmour; lighting, Jon Clark; sound, Ben and Max Ringham; hair and wig design, Richard Mawbey.

Cast: Stockard Channing, Freema Agyeman, Desmond Barrit, Laura Carmichael, Joseph Millson.

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