Review: Acceptance (Hampstead Theatre)

Anna Ledwich directs Amy Ng’s new play about prejudices and escaping our past

Issues can be as intersectional as identities. Amy Ng‘s Acceptance exists at the crossroads of two contemporary movements: the diversity debate and the #MeToo movement. It asks whether there’s an overlap between positive discrimination and the push to believe the victim. Both attempt to redress existing privilege.

Set in the admissions department of an Ivy League university in Boston, Acceptance throws up a problem case. Given its diversity drive, a virtuosic young violinist of east Asian origin catches the department’s eye, but blanks on her application form raise question marks. It turns out Angela Chan (Jennifer Leong) left her performing arts school following the dismissal of a rape claim against one of her teachers.

It hangs over her future. Head of Admissions Birch Coffin is wary of admitting a troublesome student, while her new colleague, black British academic Mercy Jones goes the extra mile to back an applicant she believes in. For an indication of where Ng’s sympathies lie, just look at those names – the one dead wood, the other a virtue. Between them, Ben Cohen flies under the radar – a paid-up white liberal promoted for his track record of improving diversity. He ends up with the casting vote on Angela’s application.

Acceptance mulls over a real chin-stroker, one that criss-crosses over contested frontiers. While Ng makes no bones about the need to unravel extant structural privileges in a bid for equality, she’s all too aware that there are growing pains, and the personal biases of her professors might tip the scales in all sorts of other ways. Angela’s a boon for diversity statistic, but trauma has intruded on her talent, and unable to play since her alleged abuse, her application rests on acceptance, not merit.

Only Ng’s scenario is too constructed by half. It raises great questions without being credible – be that because Angela gets far too close to an admissions team, pouring her heart out, or because Ng’s characters lack lives beyond work. As Angela, Leong is a nice mix of sympathy and insistence, but it’s hard to credit a 17 year-old armed with a headful of handy, illustrative facts.

Debbie Korley does well to find the lightness in a diversity diehard like Mercy, while Bo Poraj carries an air of easy, charming authority as Ben. Even so, there comes a moment when you spot where Ng’s heading – which characters she’s keeping very deliberately apart, which tutor’s reputation might ring alarm bells. It’s too neat by far, and while symmetry might satisfy, it lets the issues off the hook.

Frankie Bradshaw’s simple design suggests the heaviness of heritage at elite institutions with a tartan carpet and antique furniture, but harsh overhead lighting and an audience on both sides perhaps ups the ante rather too far. Too often Anna Ledwich’s production pushes Ng’s admissions interviews into interrogative procedurals – all a bit much to be believed.

Acceptance runs at Hampstead Downstairs until 7 April.