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Stockard Channing in “Apologia”: Still full of fire (©Marc Brenner)


I would go to see pretty much anything with Stockard Channing in it, ever since she stole my rebellious teenage heart as Rizzo, the sarky disrupter of 1950s High School mores in Grease — and has long kept me wound into The West Wing’s web as Abby Bartlett, colluding and carping with her Bill Clinton-ish other half.

It must be the slow season in Hollywood, because Channing has fetched up at Trafalgar Studios, starring in a play by an emerging talent, Greek-born Alexi Kaye Campbell. He recently gave us Sunset at the Villa Thalia — a slow-moving, but thoughtful play about Greece and the legacy of the Generals’ dictatorship.

In Apologia, which runs until November 18, Channing at 73 is still full of fire as Kristin, a self-righteous matriarch and revered art critic, who has just published a memoir failing to mention either of her grown-up sons. The ensuing birthday reunion in her country kitchen — artfully strewn with 1970s jazz posters, hanging baskets of spidery plants and ecological washing powder, is therefore uncosy from the get-go. Channing adroitly inhabits the role of the kind of progressive American who obsessively distances herself from her countrymen. Greeted by her prospective daughter-in-law from Minnesota (Downton’s Laura Carmichael) as a fellow national, she shoots back, “By birth, not by choice.”

Failed progressive politics run bitterly through Kristin’s crabby veins. But cracking delivery gives us mischief along the way. The play premiered in 2009, the glad confident morning for liberals a year after Barack Obama’s first White House victory. “See how that turns out in the long run,” is the tart riposte. The play was written before the surge of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, which rather undermines the premise that heady political passions of the Left have died out. It might well have merited a re-writing to that end.

The shadow of Donald Trump, vivid sum of Kristin’s nightmares, adds a layer of dramatic irony, but can’t quite atone for the awkward way political events have of eating up what seemed like a good plot at the time. Nonetheless, Kaye Campbell is a talent to watch, with an Ayckbourn-ish appetite for dreadful domestic moments, here hinting at darker dissonances.

Joseph Millson plays both the aggrieved sons, one seeking solace in commercial success, the other a self-harming wreck. A foxy Freema Agyeman has a cracking outing as the more uppity of the two girlfriends, Claire, outraging Kristin with the price of her frocks and describing her acting as a “continuing TV domestic drama”. “You mean a soap opera,” concludes Kristin, banging another nail into the conversational coffin.

Putting the politics aside (as if Kristin would let us), I suspect many parents on the end of blame from their offspring about something or other they should have done more or less of will warm to her insistence that a life of failed beliefs is not necessarily a life without value. “It’s an apologia, not an apology,” says our termagant heroine of her chequered life.” Raise a glass of Bulgarian cabernet sauvignon to that.

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