Writer: Joshua Harmon
Director: Daniel Aukin
Designer: Paul Willis
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Although the title of Joshua Harmon’s play is a single word it has a double meaning. Admissions refers to the process by which students gain entrance to educational establishments and also to the way characters in the play are compelled to admit to opinions they would rather conceal.
The play has topicality after the recent scandal in the USA that revealed the shady way in which wealthy celebrities secure places at top universities for their children. But, although the play concerns education, Harmon’s script is wider in scope addressing the more general theme of privilege and the complexities arising from positive discrimination. Schools are not alone in pursuing diversity – theatre companies also chase that bandwagon. Harmon bites the hand that feeds by directing his satire at the prosperous middle-classes who are perceived as traditional theatre-goers. Harmon’s point being the privileged elite are only able to take a liberal attitude towards less advantaged groups in society as they are secure knowing they will continue to enjoy their privileges. As a character remarks: if social change could be achieved without sacrifice it would have happened by now.
Sherri (Alex Kingston) is proud of her success in widening the level of diversity among students admitted to the private school where she is Head of Admission. However, Sherri’s cosy world is disrupted when her son Charlie Luther (Ben Edelman) fails to gain a place at his preferred university while his friend Perry succeeds. The situation is exacerbated as Perry is of mixed race and so might have benefitted from affirmative action and is also the son of Ginnie ( Sarah Hadland)- Sherri’s best friend.
Although Admissions has strong comedic elements Daniel Aukin directs as if it is a thriller with ominous background music playing at the opening. Aukin does not waste a moment; Paul Willis’s beautifully simple set, in which a kitchen table doubles as Sherri’s office, allows for instant scene changes with characters entering before the preceding scene has finished. Harmon’s script is daringly provocative; to the extent of making the audience a little uncomfortable. The only way a white male can gain sympathy these days, it is remarked, is if he suffers from Down’s syndrome.
Although Admissions makes serious points it does so in a highly comedic manner. Ben Edelman delivers a show-stopping extended rant that would not be out of place in a Mel Brooks comedy. An unspoken joke hanging over the production is that there are no people of colour on stage while all of the characters who agonise over how best to increase opportunities for minority groups are white and prosperous. There are few likable characters in Admissions but at least they are given the chance to develop. Andrew Wooddall, as Sherri’s husband Bill is a notable exception. Smug and secure in his worldview and incapable of relating to the distress experienced by his son Bill is a shocking example of someone who fails to acknowledge the privileges he enjoys. Ben Edelman at least has the chance to nudge Charlie towards redemption with an act that could be interpreted as a sacrifice but also a vengeful dig at his parents.
The evening is dominated by a storming performance from Alex Kingston who is on-stage for the entire play. Kingston does not hide the monstrous aspects of Sherri- hectoring and judgmental the opening scene brings to mind Margaret Thatcher at her most regal. Sherri wears her liberal principles on her sleeve – naming her son after Martin Luther King and objecting to the inclusion of Moby Dickon the school syllabus on the grounds the book was written by a dead white man. However, Kingston develops Sherri from a mere comic character towards tragedy as her maternal concern for her son’s progress and wellbeing clashes with her principles. The agonised performance from Kingston makes clear Sherri is not a hypocrite but is sincerely trying to reconcile her principles with her parental love.
Remorselessly funny and daringly provocative with a stunning central performance Admissions is top of the class.
Runs until 22nd June 2019 | Image: Johan Persson