“Initially compelling but somewhat wearing”
Alex Kingston (Doctor Who, ER) stars in Joshua Harmon’s new play as Sherri, an admissions tutor at an elite private school, trying to encourage diversity in the student body alongside her husband, the school’s principal (Andrew Woodall).
When their son Charlie (Ben Edelman) is deferred for a place at Yale, the university he’s long dreamt of attending – seemingly meaning he may get a place later on – their liberal ideals regarding race and privilege are put under scrutiny. This is centred on the fact that Charlie’s friend Perry, who is similarly qualified and is mixed race is given a place, and their assumption that this is due to the fact he ‘ticks more boxes’. Underlying prejudices that the family has assumed they are immune to surface. Harmon explores these, along with the tension between notionally held beliefs, and the tendency to make an exception out of oneself when it comes to putting ideas into practice.
The framework these ideas are discussed in – the American college system and applications process – does not fully translate in the UK. However, the broader concepts regarding liberal or leftie people failing to sufficiently question their own privilege and prejudices, and the idea of places in institutions reserved for people of colour are shared concepts enough to make the discussion relatable.
The play is largely composed of arguments, and there are a series of monologues with escalating crescendos of bitterness and rage. Ben Edelman’s performance was particularly impressive, and at times it was surprising he didn’t faint from lack of breath! The spitting anger felt reminiscent of the kind of unbridled belligerence you might find on Twitter, and helped underscore the self-interest masquerading as objectivity in his anger.
However, what is initially compelling becomes somewhat wearing. The play runs straight through the full hour and 40 minutes without an interval, and given the tension and aggression consistent throughout this becomes a little tiring. The series of monologues often come across as just that, giving the play a lack of cohesion. Furthermore, scenes starring Margot Leicester as an older, outdated administrator struggling to understand Sherri’s vision for a diverse range of students in the school prospectus don’t contribute all that much by way of exposition or insight.
With race, and opportunities for people of colour as the central focus of Admissions, it’s hard not to notice that there are no people of colour in the production. Perhaps this is a deliberate decision, an element of satire, or a way to underscore the issue, but it can’t help but rankle.
Theatre that challenges our assumptions is undoubtedly valuable. Harmon’s play is indeed thought-provoking but lacks polish. Some enthusiastic performances made it a fairly compelling watch, but its potential was not fully realised.
Review by Jen Isaaks Jackson