Brighton Year-Round 2020
Directed by Tess Gill, with Set Design construction and painting by Steven Adams (construction Stephen Evans, Mimi Goddard and BLT). Lighting and Sound design’s by Beverley Grover, operation of both by Mimi Goddard. Aimee Webb designed the costumes. Photography Miles Davies, Stage Manager Millie Edinburgh, DSM Rosalind Caldwell.
Apologia is the kind of thing Cardinal Newman wrote: Apologia Pro Vita Sua, a defiant self-justification or how the writer got from – in Newman’s case – Oxford to Rome. The last thing art historian Kristin Miller would justify is how she got from Florence via Islington to the rolling countryside. From Giotto to the smile of an oppressed 35-year-old woman in the early 14th century, maybe, in Miller’s great set-piece on how she extols humanism – when Jesus comes knocking on her kitchen door.
Does this sound circular? Alexi Kaye Campbell’s inquisition of Miller’s life pushes for an apology she doesn’t even imagine she has to make. To her sons. Apologia’s her new book, and first memoir. Except Miller’s left out any mention of a family.
Set in a sumptuous kitchen in the countryside (not too far from some TV studios though) this production of Kaye Campbell’s Apologia is directed by Tess Gill, with a striking set design, construction and painting by Steven Adams. Stone flags, bare exposed brick, stage left a working sink and fridge, and door downstage, and stage right some ornamental lamps. A blond IKEA table and chairs sets off taste and comfort. There’s a striking lack of art objects till a bit later. And there’s a couple of beautifully exposed beams upstage right with glass in between, to a range of skies.
This is where lighting – and the pop sound design – of Beverley Grover kicks in. It lends a liminal sense of space and air round a tightly manicured life. Aimee Webb’s costumes include a sumptuary dress worn by a TV actress in Japanese white. You begin to fear for it straight off. And bar an emerald green sweater and slacks, and a beige American dress sense in another, it’s otherwise subfusc male wear.
Liz Gibson’s Kristin Miller seems unruffled throughout this play, except when she isn’t. It’s 2010 and today’s her birthday. Both sons and their partners are due. Both – successful banker Peter, lost would-be novelist Simon – are played by Nick Farr. Simon’s only in the third of the four scenes set over one evening and morning.
Gibson makes Miller maddening. Her right-minded leftism infuriates because it’s unexceptionable, and prescient. It’s also brutally blinkered, complacent, virtue-signalling. Gibson steadily brings this out: brightly-chiselled speech to stop her character’s feeling. Until she does feel. And how.
Peter springs a surprise. His new American girlfriend, a chiropractor Trudi, is apolitical, eager to please, the sunset of the American dream gleaming in her eyes: and she’s religious, just Christian, not Apocalyptic. She’s even taken Peter to a prayer meeting. Oops.
Trudi’s Grace Vance is simply outstanding. She’d look at home on the stage of the New York Public Theater. Embodying a wide-eyed admiration, a shrewd sense of others’ sceptical response, a generous admission of her own innocence, she’s perfectly happy to fight for what she believes and whom she believes in.
Vance makes her gawkish liberalism entirely believable. Graceful in not wanting to be outraged at sceptics like the great art historian Miller, who Trudi’s so wanted to meet, quick to make peace when tensions rise; finally to stand up for Jesus and Peter, but nicely. Her journey – a word Miller hates – ends with a pilgrimage to Miller’s study to look up the provenance of her uneasily-accepted gift. The African mask she too blithely purchases might not seem so inappropriate after all. Vance makes Trudi appear no sap, nor criminally naïve. And she handles Trudi’s final moments of agency with a convincing steel first delivered with a velvet hug of compassion. Trudi’s simplicity is the most complex.
Farr’s main role Peter, is one of those normalising roles that Farr edges with disappointment, and the simmering access of anger he reaches for when he finally explodes. Peter’s banking career – this only just post-Crash – flies in the face of his mother’s idealism, though clearly it’s partly because of that, and abandonment issues, that Miller has no answer for. Their father kidnapped both sons back when Peter was 9, Simon 7. It scarred them. Peter’s articulate and fights off his mother’s sabotaging attempt both to destabilize his world view and perhaps his girlfriend’s. Left alone early on, they admit they have an announcement, but decide it’ll wait. Farr makes Peter’s banker a warmly believable character.
Farr’s equally fine at simmering introversion. Simon who comes in with a hand full of glass shards – an accident – only interacts with his mother in the middle of the night. To Gibson’s running homilies whilst extracting glass and christening her First Aid Box – Farr’s Simon simply echoes her words in brief phrases. He finds his hurt in a shivering eloquence, ranging up with his voice, etched like a shadow of Peter’s bright tenor, huskier, but full of limping authority. Gradually Farr’s dark near-twin of the bright successful Peter relates not just his pain but how the act of a dodgy possibly paedophilic Dutchman on a train platform at Genoa was a more compassionate act than his non-arriving mother.
His girlfriend Claire – TV actor on ‘not a soap, but serial drama’ of an ad agency – seems an unlikely coupling. Especially as Simon’s last job – just relinquished – was at a café and he’s been fizzling a novel seven years. And goes missing for days. Brassy, articulate, anti-bullshit and not afraid of taking on the sacred Miller when needled past endurance, Claire’s also capable of standing up for her ‘I’m worth it’ approach, in a defiant reveal at the end.
Faye Woodbridge plays this with a consummate assurance, pitching both small vulgarities and intellectual clarity. Woodbridge shows how Clare’s character has built herself a life she needs no justification for, and later on why. In a no-nonsense way accelerated by a small accident – we knew it was coming – she blisters off Miller’s attempts to finally shake her off from Simon. The couple will resolve on their own. Woodbridge’s delivery shows you a glimpse of Claire’s acting steel.
Claire faces just opposition too. Kaye Campbell’s generous to his characters’ back-stories but nearly all are challenged. En route Claire’s annoyed Trudi in her – as Trudi sees – consumer approach to different religions: a bit of Buddhist meditation, scented sacredness in the Orthodox Church Anglicanism can’t emulate, as Peter agrees. Trudi ripostes those medieval Imams carry huge numbers of people into the sacred; it’s not to be touristed out or despised.
Steven Adams’ Hugh, Miller’s best friend over decades, has several apologias for her life to deliver, springing to her defence late on after being laid low by a fingernail in the beef oyster dinner they had to order when the Aga failed. It’s a fine device. Being ill means Adams’ set-piece doesn’t come till the next morning, with Simon gone again, Claire valedictory and Peter alone for just a minute.
Adams is strong on the Best Friend delivery, refusing to allow conventional camp into his provocative lines, letting Hugh speak convincingly with a crackling whiplash when not being funny for the visitors – whom he also defends. Hugh stands for balance and loyalty, and like other moral centres in plays, seems the outsider. I imagined the set speech might be delivered with less of the party-gone-wrong volubility of the previous night, but Adams convinces you of Hugh’s – as Hugh terms it – English values and can deliver a fine roast, Aga or no Aga; the electrician will arrive soon.
There’s much exposition in the first scene. The second scene’s build-up to (not just) culinary disaster is a delight: with a brilliance of Ayckbournesque plotting. The following scenes quietly electrify, as catastrophe unravels.
Kaye Campbell has written a fine play, deftly plotted to allow reveals to arise naturally, with generous room for characters to grow in the work’s two-hours-twenty including interval. His plays port historical baggage. The Pride contrasts sexual attitudes and loyalties in 1958 and 2008 – or 2018 in a new iteration. 2016’s NT commission, Sunset at the Villa Thalia explores a legacy of tourism, 1967’s Greek Colonels usurping Greece, with one character’s CIA role in the Argentinean Disappeared. Here, 1968 idealism – sharp-witted Claire specifically derides the 1968ers – is vindicated not by its embodiment Miller, but by the man who saw in her eyes the light she later saw in Giotto’s humanist glint, portraying the Madonna. Miller might have written her Apologia. Hugh is the only one who can utter it. Richly charactered, thoroughly absorbing.