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A CurtainUp London Review
"The thing I most remember about you is your absence."— Simon
Stockard Channing as Kristin Miller (Photo: Marc Brenner)
I am trying to put my finger on it. Why didn't I love Alexi Kaye Campbell's play as much as I had in 2009 at The Bush when it was directed by Josie Rourke and starred Paola Dionisotti as the caustic matriarch. Was it to do with Stockard Channing's fixed stare at the audience with her excess of eye shadow, rotund cheekbones and big hair? Was it because her character has been converted into an American woman, the space formerly occupied by her daughter in law, the effusive Trudi played by the wonderful Laura Carmichael? Was it because the Second Press Night had less energy than the first?

I remember the play working before because, although she was witty, we thoroughly disliked Kristin Miller in the first act but the second act allowed us to see her from another point of view, which was more sympathetic. This time at the Trafalgar Studios, I found myself not caring either way. Maybe it was because I knew what was coming?

The nationality shift to accommodate Channing's normal accent has meant some textual changes and the insertion of some artificial and false bonding between the two American women which Kristin mentions but is obviously not sincere about. I found myself warming to Laura Carmichael's Trudi, who, although she is predictably merry and bright and anxious to put the best possible interpretation on events and people, is lampooned for her Christian background. She arrives with a hideous African mask as a birthday present for Kristin which was a brave choice. She then spends much of the first act looking for reassurance that their present has been well received by the grudging Kristin.

The key to Kaye Campbell's play is the view that Kristin's two sons have of their art historian mother. This has been accentuated by the recent publication of her memoir in which her sons do not get a mention. Both men are played by Joseph Millson. Peter is a successful banker and engaged to Trudi, whom he met at a prayer meeting. Kristin despises his choice of occupation having spent the 1960s protesting in Grosvenor Square against the Vietnam War. The other son, Simon is worse off both financially and in terms of his mental health. He reminisces about when, as a young schoolboy, his mother was meant to meet him at a railway station in Italy and turned up 24 hours late leaving him vulnerable, feeling abandoned and prey to a potential molester of young boys.

Gathering for her birthday party are the fiancee and girlfriend of both sons, although Simon does not arrive until the early hours of the morning. Trudi we have already looked at but Simon's girlfriend is a soap star actress Claire (Freema Agyeman) with designer taste in her frock (Japanese and costing £2000). What I missed any explanation for, is how Simon, who appears to be homeless, attracted such an ambitious D list celebrity. But as vehicles to contrast values with those of their mother, we do understand just how far away from her, the men are in choosing their lifetime companion. Trudi is sweet and nice to everybody and positive. Claire is materialistic and career centred. We do get an explanation from Claire as to why she is this way when she talks about a materially deprived childhood.

Kristin's old friend, Hugh (Desmond Barrit) is gay and witty, some of it self deprecating and has many of the best one liners in the play. He comes to the defence of his friend Kristin and we get a very sketchy picture of how she felt when her husband won custody of his sons. Apart from that there is little information to analyse what went wrong with Kristin's marriage, only that she seemed to regret the loss of her boys but not enough to be sure to meet Simon at the agreed time and place in a strange country for him.

London West End theatre is attractive to American stars because of the shorter contracts and if it isn't a huge success, fewer people will get to hear about it. Trafalgar Studios is a smaller pair of theatres off the beaten track in Whitehall away from the main theatre streets. People going to see Stockard Channing will get a performance from a star of film, television and stage but I was disappointed.

For my review of the 2009 production at The Bush go here.

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Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Starring: Stockard Channing
With: Desmond Barrit, Laura Carmichael, Joseph Millson, Freema Agyeman
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Design: Jon Clark
Sound Design: Ben and Max Ringham
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7632
Booking to 18th November 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th August 2017 performance at Trafalagar Studios One, 14 Whitehall, London SW1 2DY (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
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