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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Trafalgar Studios  Summer-Autumn 2017

First seen at the Bush Theatre in 2009, Alexi Kaye Campbell's domestic drama makes a belated move to the West End in a new production built around American actress Stockard Channing. Channing is a performer who exudes power and brittleness, and her role here could have been written for her. 

She plays an eminent art historian who was also in her 1960s-1970s youth a passionate political activist, at the forefront of demonstrations and marches for a wide range of causes. She now faces the charge that in pursuing her career and saving the world she neglected her now-adult sons, warping and damaging them irreparably. 

And she proves that she hasn't lost any of her values or fervour by not only defending herself passionately, but by unreservedly attacking what she sees as the shallow values and wasted (because uncommitted) lives of the younger generation. 

As I wrote in 2009, the play 'has some of the finest, most eloquent and most passionate dramatic writing of the year [but] its dramaturgy and characterisations aren't quite as original and impressive'. 

The play is built on arguments, debates and self-justifications among characters who really care about things, and whether heartfelt or just plain bitchy, their interactions are almost unrelentingly intense and, not incidentally, beautifully written and performed. 

The occasion is a dinner party for not only mother and sons, one an international banker and the other a dropout, but their girlfriends, respectively a blonde American born-again Christian and a TV soap opera actress, and the almost obligatory gay old family friend. 

Campbell almost perversely makes the characters extreme stereotypes, if only to subvert some of our assumptions about them later.

Each of the five will have the opportunity to speak with conviction and eloquence about something that matters to them, be it art, faith or just nice dresses, and each of the characters we are quick to pigeonhole and dismiss will prove to have a little more depth than we expected. 

Absolute master of the quiet catty zinger, Stockard Channing finds all the naughty fun for us in watching her character ever-so-politely set someone up and then move in for the kill. 

She also gets the play's strongest aria, as she takes a break from shooting people down to explain in wholly serious and deeply moving terms why art really matters. 

(One of the play's weaknesses is that it is never really clear why the playwright made her an art historian, since the clashes with everyone else are really based on her political ideals. You can't help wondering if that one excellent speech wasn't a leftover from some other uncompleted play and Campbell rewrote this character just to be able to fit it in.) 

Director Jamie Lloyd has assembled a first-class cast around his star. A costume change and the fact that they never actually meet onstage allows Joseph Millson to play both sons, demonstrating two different kinds of emotional damage from their mother's neglect. 

Freema Agyeman makes the materialistic actress the second-smartest person in the room, able to give Channing's character some real competition in both debate and cattiness. 

Laura Carmichael invests the American with a warm sincerity that makes her impossible to dismiss as just another dumb blonde, while Desmond Barrit steals moment after moment without visible effort as the witty gay observer. 

As the play reaches toward an ending, everyone becomes just a little too wise and deep and soft and gooey and probably unbelievable, and the moral issues and human dramas raised in the course of the play are virtually all left unresolved. 

But if the play ultimately goes nowhere, it provides a vehicle for some good talk and excellent performances, and is thoroughly engrossing and entertaining along the way.

Gerald Berkowitz

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