Writer: Joshua Harmon
Director: Daniel Aukin
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
This smart and talky new play by Joshua Harmon, who gave us Bad Jews, tackles racism within the high school and university admissions systems in America. Although the action takes places in leafy New Hampshire we have similar problems in the UK with Oxbridge accepting fewer black students than other less prestigious universities. Grime artist Stormzy has even offered to provide scholarships for black students to attend Cambridge; Oxford initially rejected his offer. Admissions is a timely play.
Sherri Rosen-Mason is the admissions officer for a fancy private school called Hillcrest. When she first took over the role, black and Asian students only accounted for 4% of the student population. However, when we meet her in her office at the start of the play these students now make up 18% of the population. She’s eager for this percentage to increase even more, and is determined that more black faces are featured in the school’s brochure, an ambition that her colleague can’t quite grasp.
She also has ambitions for her son, too. Charlie is 17 and has applied to Yale, a university he has always wanted to attend since he saw the film Mystic Pizza as a child. However, his application is turned down, but his best friend Perry has been accepted. Charlie believes he is more qualified than his friend; his grades are better, and he has more varied extracurricular activities marked down on his application form. He believes that Perry was accepted because he is black, and that Yale is seeking to increase its quota of non-white students.
Charlie is angry about being passed over, and thinks the fact that he is white and male is hindering his chances at school and university. He also rails against the decision to give the editorship of the school newspaper to a female student, who, he believes, has no aptitude for writing or leadership. Charlie’s parents tell him to check his privilege, but can they pull some strings to persuade Yale to change its mind. Can they use their privilege to cheat the system?
Hillcrest may not suffer from a lack of diversity, but the play’s characters do. All the cast are white, and the script would make any colour-blind casting difficult, though, arguably, Sherri’s colleague Roberta could be played by a person of colour, with her casual prejudices being fuelled by an internalised racism. Without a black voice Admissions is a very much a white play (if there is such a thing) with white characters discussing white privilege in white privileged ways. Perhaps this is the point, but it means that (white) Ginnie speaks for her black husband and her bi-racial son, Perry, when these two characters could speak their own minds. With black characters on stage, it would also reduce the pressure on Charlie, who, despite being unlikeable and whiny, becomes the moral compass of the play.
Alex Kingston (ER, Dr Who) is spot on as smug Sherri, and as the scenes nicely overlap, she’s on stage for the whole 100 minutes. She ‘does’ cool and calculating well, and perhaps only becomes unbelievable when she loses her temper. Sarah Hadland also gives a solid performance as Ginnie, and manages by the end of the play to shake off the ditziness of Stevie, who she plays in the sitcom Miranda. Charlie is played by Ben Edelman, who comes from America to reprise his role from the New York production. His acting is a little louder and more animated than the others and while this may signify the heightened emotions of a teenager, his stroppiness soon becomes annoying, undermining the interesting things he’s shouting about.
With Paul Wills’ handsome set (an open plan kitchen with a full flight of stairs) Admissions looks good and is often very funny, but even though it wants the audience to question the motives of each of the five characters on stage, it can’t quite escape its own smugness.
Runs until 25 May 2019 | Image: Contributed