Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Theatre Review: Admissions

Plays about race and diversity are a refreshingly common occurrence in London theatre these days. No, let me try that again. There used to be literally no plays in London theatre about race and diversity and now there are some. Progress, of a sort.

The latest offering in this particular canon is Admissions. Written by Joshua Harmon, Admissions tells the story of Sherri Rosen-Mason the head of admissions for an elite New Hampshire boarding school. Sherri’s mission in work and, apparently, life is to increase the proportion of non-white students at the school. She is a big believer in diversity and so are her husband and son. Or are they? When said son is passed over for his choice of elite University, but his mixed race best friend is not, everything this annoyingly woke family believes is called into question. 

This ‘what happens when your principles meet the people you care about most in the world and it doesn’t end well’ idea is sort of interesting. Discussions around white privilege, white guilt and - more broadly - what a meaningful commitment to diversity actually means are interesting. Having them discussed by an entirely white cast in a way where a liberal, right on, whiteness is presented as a distinct identity, almost a character in its own right, is interesting too. But for me Admissions as an overall piece of writing ends up not being that interesting.

I think there are a few reasons for this. Primarily, I felt like the play never really developed the ideas that it presents initially. It’s structure, of three distinct chronological sections, could have really allowed for a development of any one of its themes. Instead it just felt to me as if the same arguments were rehashed three times, albeit with different characters taking up different sides. There is absolutely a discussion to be had about how far a supposed meritocracy will ever allow minorities to succeed, but do we really have to have it three times with the same lines of argument? And yes, there is also a discussion to be had about the role of money, the role of your parents, the role of their histories, in how you get on in life but, again, really three times? Related, I also found the play too long. If it was a strict ninety minutes - or even an hour - that really honed in on one or two of its key themes (and I think if it had focused way more laser-like on the intersectional interplay between different types of privilege - racial, economic, class, insider status - it would have been far more interesting) I probably would have enjoyed it more. I struggled too to really care about Sherri and her son, Charlie, both of whom are frankly just quite annoying. Kind of problematic for a play that centres on them.

All of which is not to say that I think Admissions is a bad play because it’s quite evidently not. It does raise worthy and thought provoking points, absolutely, and it does so in a very entertaining way. Harmon’s writing is pleasingly dark, punchy and at times very funny. He manages frequent switches between comedy and drama really well. His perspective, as mentioned, of writing a self consciously white ‘race play’ is clever. I enjoyed the play, I just don’t think it’s as challenging or provocative as it’s set out to be. Or indeed as it could be.

The production, in the main space at the Trafalgar Studios (never my favourite venue, and one which needs better air con - it was like bikram theatre at the back of the stalls - and a more proactive ushering policy re dickheads on phones and latecomers) is probably about as good as it could be. Director Daniel Aukin moves things along with a bounce and presents a cohesive vision of the play in a fairly stripped back staging. There’s just the one set, by Paul Wills, which effectively doubles as both home and office. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting is pleasingly domestic. I wonder if there’s an argument to say that this production should have been set in a British institution, given all but one of the cast are British and some of their American accents are, charitably, not the best, but that’s the only thing I can criticise really.

Accents aside, the cast is great though. It’s headlined by Alex Kingston, who to be honest I’ve seen do better but is still endlessly watchable and thoroughly credible as Sherri. Sarah Hadland is something of a minor revelation to me as Sherri’s friend Ginnie (the mother of Charlie’s mixed race BFF), delivering a lot of the play’s most genuine emotion with real guts and commitment as well as the sort of knock about humour that people (ie me) that have only seen her in Miranda might expect. Both Hadland and her character are underused I think. Andrew Woodall does nice work as Sherri’s no nonsense husband Bill, getting many of the best lines and generally being by far the least annoying of the central family. Margot Leicester is engagingly baffled as Sherri’s long suffering admissions brochure designer, struggling to understand what exactly Sherri means by diversity. Ben Edelman, as Charlie, is believably a stroppy teenager but altogether too shouty for my money - though in fairness his character does go on the biggest ‘journey’ during the play which he manages really well.

I didn’t love Admissions, and I can definitely see why a lot of the American reviewers thought it was insufferably smug. That said, it is a play that I’m glad I’ve seen - even if I wouldn’t rush to see it again - and I’m glad I’ve seen this production. I’m genuinely not sure it could be done much better than it’s done here. If you come expecting an entertaining comedy that will make you occasionally go ‘oh actually that’s a good point’ you won’t leave disappointed.

Admissions is in Studio One at the Trafalgar Studios until 25th May.

I sat in Q10 for this one and paid £30 for a preview performance. It’s a great seat for that venue, even if it is ludicrously hot.

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