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Theatre review: Stockard Channing puts up a poignant fight in this gripping acting bout

Eager to please: Laura Carmichael. plays a platitude spouting Christian PICTURE: MARK BRENNER

REVIEW

Apologia

Trafalgar Studios, London

★★★★☆

SHE was impressive in The Good Wife and The West Wing, but formany, Stockard Channing will always be the snarky, super-cool Rizzo in Grease. She’s now 73, and this 2009 play by Alexi Kaye Campbell is a far cry from that teen movie musical, but anyone who adored Rizzo’s sass, bite and underlying vulnerability will also relish her performance here.

In Campbell’s biliously funny family drama, directed by Jamie Lloyd, Channing is Kristin, an art historian and political firebrand of the 1960s, throwing a turbulent get-together to celebrate her birthday. Scornful of inferior intellects and exasperated by her two sons’ life choices, she’s an unnerving hostess who can turn refilling a glass into a devastating gesture of disdain.

‘Still raping the Third World?’ she acidly enquires of Peter, a banker who appals his socialist mother further by arriving with an American, platitude-spouting Christian girlfriend (Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael, goofily eager to please). Kristin’s other boy, Simon (both brothers skilfully played by Joseph Millson) is a depressive, failed writer, unhappily shacked up with a glossy soap actress (Freema Agyeman).

Kristin’s gay old activist friend Hugh (waspish Desmond Barrit) completes the guest list for a less than swinging party, at which festering grievances rise and Kristin stands accused of failure as a mother.

The conflict throws up debates about art, faith, feminism, consumerism and idealism, and the stinging dialogue and bare-knuckle acting make this a gripping bout of savage emotional in-fighting. Kristin takes a beating, but Channing triumphs, portraying her with subtlety, poignance and excoriating wit.