Apologia, noun: a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct, not to be confused with an apology. Directed by Jamie Lloyd, Apologia is a volatile family drama set in 2009 in the English countryside. It is matriarch and mother Kristin’s (Stockard Channing) birthday, and after publishing a memoir – ‘the life and times of’ – in which she neglects to mention her two beloved sons, Kristin has a lot to answer for.

An American liberal art historian with an image of Karl Marx in her downstairs bathroom, Kristin spent her youth in the late sixties with brilliantly camp friend Hugh (Desmond Barrit) protesting, campaigning, loving and travelling. Sons Peter and Simon (Joseph Millson) and their partners, the all-American sweetheart, Trudi (Laura Carmichael) and the strikingly British, gutsy soap-opera star Claire (Freema Agyeman) all visit her in her country home – a middle-class rustic bohemian set design by Soutra Gilmour – where years of unanswered questions inevitably resurface.

Joseph Millson portrays both sons with suitable anger and disappointment from both men. In the second act during a painfully confessional exchange of dialogue between mother and son, he is heart-stopping as a momentarily calm but ultimately troubled Simon, while he is consistently strong and thick-skinned as banker Peter, who, in Kristin’s words ‘regularly rapes the third world countries’. Freema Agyeman is hedonistic and bold as Claire, Simon’s partner and a C-lister with more to her than Kristin gives her credit for, while Desmond Barrit as Hugh is the dear friend who will bring naughty humour, defend you when under attack and fish a fingernail from your Chinese takeaway that we all deserve.

However, it is Laura Carmichael’s Trudi that steals the show. She too is an American, to the dismay of Kristin, and a devout Christian with a penchant for hyperbole. She’s sweet, kind and easily impressed. With her soft voice and gentle approach, she’s the ultimate opposite to Kristin – but it seems it is only she who can understand her, and even offer her salvation. Observant and inquisitive, like Kristin, but perhaps also a reflection of the kind of woman Kristin’s children wanted her to be – Carmichael is warm and maternal as Trudi, and seems to revel in the domesticity of the life she and Peter have created.  

Undeniably funny and at times immovably belligerent, Tony-award winner Channing gives a conflicted Kristin. She is both certain and unsure, firm and soft, proud and ashamed. We feel in her the tug between herself, and who she ‘ought’ to be as a mother. Her maternal failings are illustrated immediately through her inability to perform the basic domestic task of having the chicken cooked and ready for dinner, and the rest of the play is her Apologia. A formal defence of her conduct, primarily regarding her children, and we, via Trudi, feel sympathy for her.

Apologia lacks the stylish supernaturalism of Lloyd’s past productions such as The Homecoming, Doctor Faustus, and The Pitchfork Disney, but shares the same tight cast and beating pace that matches a sentimental but witty script by Alexi Kaye Campbell – who’s writing incredibly captures subtle realities that inject sincerity into his work. Reflective, modern and boasting a killer-cast, Apologia is glorious.

Apologia is playing at Trafalgar Studios until November 18.

Photo: Marc Brenner