Apologia at Trafalgar Studios review: The West Wing's Stockard Channing stars in savage, funny play about maternal neglect

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Apologia at Trafalgar Studios is a savage, funny drama that considers the consequences of maternal neglect. Stockard Channing, who was so memorable as Abbey Bartlet in The West Wing (and Rizzo in Grease), is magnetic as émigré art historian and derelict mother Kristin.

The character here bears some resemblance to Channing’s recurring role as Veronica Loy, the charming but maddeningly self-absorbed mother of the titular lead in The Good Wife, but Kristin is more callous, condescending, and provocative. She’s an anti-hero, in the brilliant bastard mode, which is tediously common for male actors, but depressingly rare for women.

A former radical, Kristin now lives in the idyll of rural England. She is visited on her birthday by her banker son, Peter, and his new American fiancée, Trudi. In this production of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 2009 play, Kristin has been rewritten slightly to make her American too; a concession to the actress playing the role, but it adds an additional layer of complexity to her relationship with her prospective daughter-in-law, who is a wholesome, evangelical embodiment of the country she abandoned.

Prickly and challenging, Kristin remains relatively civil until the arrival of Claire, the girlfriend of her other son, Simon. Played with vim and confidence by Freema Agyeman (Martha from Doctor Who), Claire is the only character who manages to give as good as she gets. But as the evening progresses, and more wine is consumed, their exchanges become increasingly barbed. Comic interjections from Hugh, Kristin’s gay best friend (Desmond Barrit), release the tension from time to time, but it’s still tears before bedtime, and when dolorous, drug addicted Simon arrives injured during the night, the tone darkens further.

Joseph Millson successfully shifts between restraint, anger and sorrow, in dual roles as both of Kristin’s sons, while Laura Carmichael’s Trudi – so eager to make a good impression – is the sympathetic heart of the play, and perhaps offers a chance of redemption.

A story of complicated, damaged people and relationships, steeped in futility and regret; Apologia must be a conscious tribute to Chekhov. Some of the references are quite blatant, for instance Kristin tending to her wounded son echoes a similar scene in The Seagull, and as soon as it is stated that the phones of Claire and Kristin look alike, the audience knows that one will receive a call intended for the other; a digital update of Chekhov’s gun.

But while Chekhov’s works were meant to be generalisable to the broader world, Apologia is more specific. Some effort is made to defend Kristin’s parental absence on the grounds that she was off fighting for the greater good – a claim more convincing in reference to the accomplishments of the women’s movement than revolutionary socialism – but the argument is self-serving and unsatisfying.

That a play called “Apologia” should offer such a diffident defence suggests that we may be entering a post-allegorical age, but the play’s apparent scepticism towards heroic values is its most Chekhovian feature.