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Admissions

by on 8 May 2019

Inside Track

Admissions

by Joshua Harmon

Simon Friend Productions at the Trafalgar Studios until 25th May, then at Richmond Theatre until 1st June and on tour until 22nd June

Review by Eleanor Lewis

Scrolling through the BBC News website this week, you find coverage of the US college admissions scandal, in which wealthy parents and a sprinkling of celebrities have been discovered using a scam to get their children into America’s elite universities. Joshua Harmon’s play Admissions, currently at Trafalgar Studios, couldn’t be more timely, even though over here the issues tend to collect around secondary education rather than university admissions.

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Moving seamlessly to and from the office of Sherri Rosen-Mason who controls admissions at the elite Hillcrest School, and her creamy, spacious kitchen at home, Admissions takes place over about just one academic year. Sherri is trying to increase the diversity at Hillcrest and must struggle with Roberta (an endearing performance from Margot Leicester) who has not included enough pictures of ethnically diverse faces in the school brochure. From a different generation, Roberta does not understand, she “just does not see race”.

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Sherri is good friends with Ginnie. Both women have sons the same age and academic ability at Hillcrest, but Ginnie’s son has a black father. When both boys apply to Yale and Ginnie’s son Perry is accepted while Sherri’s son Charlie is deferred, a very uncomfortable kind of hell breaks loose and the women drift from each other. It’s worth noting that Ginnie could be seen as a purely symbolic character, there to illustrate that any breakthrough must involve loss, but Sarah Hadland is too skilled a performer to make her anything other than dignified, sympathetic and real. The structure of the play tends to focus on Sherri and Charlie but there are sterling performances from all on stage including Andrew Woodall as Sherri’s stay-with-the-status-quo husband.

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The Yale deferment provides the final straw for Charlie. He is white, male and privileged and this status, he believes, is almost counterproductive in the diversity-led world he inhabits. Added to this, Charlie is no lazy, rich boy: he has worked for his grades. Joshua Harmon’s characters are full blooded Americans, they do not purse their lips, fold their arms and seethe in silence as we angry British do. They vent at full volume and rage with every sinew when required. True to form, in response to rejection, Charlie embarks on an extended rant at full volume for some time and then a little more time, slightly too much time really. It’s an understandable, and definitely adolescent reaction, but the length of it rather than leaving you focussed on the issue in question, makes you wonder what the daily repetition does to an actor’s voice, even a professionally trained voice. It’s a harsh bit of direction and a change in tone after the initial fury would be more effective.

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Later in the year, a calmer Charlie has arrived at an objective view of the situation and wants to make the type of personal sacrifice most parents wouldn’t entertain for a nanosecond (though if there is a way to solve the education-privilege conundrum this is probably it). His mother on hearing his decision reacts with the brand of horror usually reserved for the discovery of an unexpected corpse on the living room carpet – the reaction of any parent on hearing this news. This makes for a fabulous scene, highly entertaining, deeply cringe-worthy, and perfectly rendered by Alex Kingston as Sherri and Ben Edelman as Charlie. I will go no further into the resolution of this family’s difficulties, though I suspect it will not surprise an audience familiar with how The System works, because The System has really always worked this way. Admissions is not only about the admissions system, it’s also about the admissions we avoid making to ourselves: “You want things to look different but I don’t really think you want them to be different” is Ginnie’s response to her ex-friend when she asks for help, and it probably sums up the whole hill of beans.

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Prior to Admissions, in 2013 Joshua Harmon brought Bad Jews to the stage. In Bad Jews the children of holocaust survivors deal, or not, with their history. Harmon doesn’t beat about the bush: he confronts the sensitive and the hypocritical loudly, with no cushioning ambiguity and a great deal of humour. Admissions doesn’t disappoint, it sizzles with cleverness and wit but it will scorch the nerves of any liberal parent striving to do the educational best for their child whilst clinging on to any kind of credibility. It should probably be required viewing for parents everywhere, not that it provides any answers other than the one they could not bring themselves to effect. Enjoyable, funny and challenging drama. Highly recommended.

Eleanor Lewis
May 2019

Photography courtesy of Simon Friend

From → Drama, Reviews

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