Review - Apologia starring Stockard Channing at Trafalgar Studios

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

We have a very fertile new writing culture in Britain - so fertile, in fact, that good plays are seemingly discarded after their first productions and only rarely resurface again for another outing. Productions that begin in London's extensive network of new writing studio theatres routinely suffer this fate, unless they transfer immediately to the West End after their original runs, as in the current Shaftesbury Avenue run for Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman.

So they usually need strong champions to get another life; and in this regard, Jamie Lloyd has now done sterling service once again to actor-turned-playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell. He previously gave a second outing to Campbell's first play The Pride, which he originally staged at the Royal Court in 2008, and then restaged at the West End's Trafalgar Studios in 2013. Now he gives another outing to the same playwright's second play Apologia, originally premiered at the Bush Theatre in 2009 in a production not directed by himself, that he has now brought again to the Trafalgar Studios.

As with The Pride, this is a smart, powerful and poignant play that earns its place in the West End. It effortlessly scales up from the close-up intimacy of a studio theatre to the larger lens of a proscenium stage, albeit one that calls for a quite a bit of concentrated good acting since it is sited in London's single most physically uncomfortable auditorium, so the actors need to be good to take your mind off the awful seats.
But then the play is also frequently uncomfortable viewing, so perhaps it is appropriate to put the audience in a state of alert by making them feel uncomfortable to begin with.

Campbell offers an uncompromising family drama about the damage a neglectful mother has caused to her two adult sons. As they gather with their respective partners to mark her birthday, there are scores to be settled, not least that she has recently published an autobiography that completely fails to mention their existence.

When she divorced their father, he acquired custody, so their relationship with her has long been long-distance and tenuous; tonight, over a meal of home delivered Chinese food, they will finally confront her about the repercussions of her early abandonment of them.

As the ferocious matriarch, veteran Broadway actress Stockard Channing pulls out all the stops from her arsenal of stage chops to deliver a brittle, wounding and wounded performance, like a proud lioness but one who knows, instinctively, what she's done.  In a tour-de-force pair of performances, Joseph Millson plays both sons: a successful banker with the American woman he intends to make his fiancee (Downton Abbey star Laura Carmichael), and a desperately depressed man whose partner is a television soap actress (Freema Agyeman). The cast is completed by a tenderly warm performance from Desmond Barrit as the mother's long-time confidant and friend.

It's good to see the Trafalgar Studios, now newly under the management of Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire for the Trafalgar Entertainment Group, offering a second run to such a good play. Now I only wish they'd attend to the physical comfort of the venue, too.

Apologia Tickets are available now. 

Originally published on

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