Apologia | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft - Patrick Brammall, Robyn Nevin. Cover - Ian Bliss, Helen Christinson, Ronald Falk, Laura Gordon, Robyn Nevin. Photos - Jeff Busby

by award-winning playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell is a witty play; it is obvious how much fun the writer has with eloquence. The arena of the family reunion simmering with tension; disappointments and differing ideological stances between the generations is a much-used one in theatre because, of course, families can act as microcosms of society with all the conflict a writer could need. The greatest of stories are so often family dramas. Here, an academic mother, who’s published her memoir omitting any mention of her two sons, hosts a dinner party. Her oven isn’t working, a hint of future disaster. One of the sons arrives with his American Jesus-loving fiancé; the other is expected but doesn’t turn up, although his girlfriend, a television soap star, does.

Here’s a clue as to why Apologia, despite the strong presence of Robyn Nevin as Kristin (actually a bit shaky on opening night) might not satisfy – when a playwright says things like “It’s much easier to write drama about English characters. English characters never say what they mean ... they think in code and what they really think is held back...” then you know he is dealing in national stereotypes and has, indeed, found it easy to invent these people. The personae in this piece are familiar, two dimensional stock standard characters. Clever, witty dialogue isn’t sufficient, not if you’re asking the audience to actually care and take it seriously, as Apologia does. I didn’t care about any of the characters or the story; the language and Kristin's passionate lecture on the contribution to art of the pre-Renaissance painter Giotto, were the real pleasures.

There’s something very tired about the dialogue in Apologia, although it is amusing and fast paced, and elicits a good giggle, because, actually, the characters do say what they mean. We find out just what Kristin thinks of Peter, Trudi and Claire. Her partner Hugh is a buffoon, present only as an old dear, your standard campy verbose duffer. Peter eventually takes his mother to task for not mentioning her sons in her book – the result is disappointing because the play doesn’t really deal with this, it’s glossed over, a device to allow people to be sarcastic and put each other down in that familiar cutting drawing-room repartee, therein creating the problem. The play doesn’t delve into Kristin’s personal psychological reasons for placing work over family; we hear about her 1960s activism and how disillusioned she is now, but a genuine sense of idiosyncratic, individual family dynamics is missing as none of the characters have real personalities. They come across as mouthpieces, stand-ins for their various positions in society and culture.

Perhaps what they're not saying isn't interesting. Kristin explains how an apologia (not to be confused with an apology) is a formal written defence of one's actions but she makes neither on stage to any moving effect. The wit succeeds, the drama doesn't, despite trying hard. Apologia doesn't delve deeply enough; it is clever but heartless.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Alexi Kaye Campbell

Directed by Jennifer Flowers

Venue: the Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 18 February - 2 April, 2011
Tickets: From $61.10 (Under 30s $30)
Bookings: The MTC Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 or mtc.com.au, the Arts Centre 1300 182 183 or theartscentre.com.au