The Theatreguide.London Review
Trafalgar Studios Spring 2019
A well-defined debate on
timely issues presented with the intense passion of characters whose lives
are directly affected by their moral and social beliefs, this import from
New York is a drama with real meat to it, and the occasion of some bravura
acting not always available in contemporary plays.
If playwright Joshua Harmon
has to define and manipulate his characters and situation a little to
allow for the debate, that's a small and acceptable price.
The play is set in an
American prep school, the equivalent of British public schools – that is
to say, very much not public but an enclave of the well-off, privileged
and generally white.
Sherri is the school's
admissions officer, a liberal sincerely dedicated to opening the school to
non-traditional students – or, in her studiously PC terms, people of
colour. The irony that this makes her more aware of students' race and
more inclined to think in terms of racial quotas is lost on her, if not on
But that bit of unconscious
liberal inconsistency is not the main issue. When Sherri's graduating son
Charlie misses out on acceptance to an elite university while a less
qualified black student gets in, Sherri and Charlie (There's also the
husband/father, something of a non-entity) have to face the challenge of
living by their own professed values.
The mother's immediate
instinct is to use all their connections – i.e. the tools of their class
and racial privilege – to pull strings and get the boy in. In several
sequences of intense and anguished self-examination she is forced to face
the realisation that she doesn't really believe what she preaches, not
when it comes down to her own son.
Alex Kingston makes what
could in less sensitive hands be the comic exposure of a ridiculous
character sympathetic and even tragic.
Meanwhile the boy faces for
the first time in his life the experience of being prejudiced against, and
is almost broken by it. In a powerful and extended screed against the
unfairness of a world that doesn't deliver what he had been brought up to
consider his birthright, young actor Ben Edelman allows us to see the
irony but also the real anguish of the lad.
And then playwright Harmon
takes things a step deeper by letting the boy progress past his pain where
his parents can't. Charlie announces he is not going to go to university
at all, leaving his spot open to some disadvantaged kid.
We are not blind to the
adolescent over-dramatisation of the gesture, but it does take the debate
onto a new level and intensify the human drama of the play.
Admissions is not perfect.
The two central characters so dominate things that the rest of the roles
are underwritten, leaving actors struggling to work with the little
they're given. And Charlie is a little too clear-thinking and eloquent for
even a bright eighteen-year-old.
But Admissions intelligently and sympathetically explores the complexities and self-contradictions of liberalism, shows us the real pain of people trying earnestly to live up to their own standards, and offers two strong acting roles. It is one of the most satisfying serious dramas of recent years.
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