Review: Admissions (Trafalgar Studios)

Joshua Harmon’s play about education and race stars Alex Kingston

Alex Kingston, Andrew Woodall and Ben Edelman in Admissions
Alex Kingston, Andrew Woodall and Ben Edelman in Admissions
© Johan Persson

Liberal white guilt, race, privilege, discrimination – both positive and negative – and hypocrisy all come under the microscope in Joshua Harmon's play, which takes place in and around an elite American private school. It's a lot of thorny ground to cover, but this is the man who wrote Bad Jews, a play which questioned, and dismantled, ancestral legacy through the prism of a mourning Jewish family. It was a fearlessly shocking family breakdown on steroids.

Though Admissions is clearly by the same writer – at it's best it is whip smart, daring and full of rage – it never quite reaches Bad Jews' heights. That is mainly to do with the bulky, often repetitive arguments which occasionally feel sluggish in Daniel Aukin's grounded production. It begins with Sherri, head of admissions for the school and her concerns with getting the institution to look 'more like the country we live in'. Since she's started she has managed to get the number of students of colour at the school up to 18 per cent: "300 per cent better than it was" when she first started.

The problem comes when her son Charlie doesn't get into Yale but his mixed race best friend does. What follows is an emotional, horribly privileged and fairly racist tirade from a 17 year-old boy who is convinced the only reason his friend got a place ‘at the table' and he didn't is because his friend ticks a box. Sherri's husband Bill – who also happens to be headmaster of the school (who'd have those parents?) – robustly berates his child, but Sherri stands, stuck in-between the two men. She wants to protect and support Charlie but she also, because it has been her life's mission, is acutely and quietly aware of the situation on a very different level. It doesn't just stop there: Charlie concocts a way of really testing his parents' principles, which may or may not be a malicious attempt to expose the two of them as the hypocrites they are.

One of the main problems with the piece comes with the character of Charlie, who we initially meet hours after he has heard the disappointing news and has gone to a wood to scream for a while before arriving back home. He's upset, of course, but it's hard to believe in someone so convinced of their own worth – especially a teenager. And it's difficult to believe that his parents wouldn't be more affronted at his outburst.

The scenes with the biggest issues at stake are laboured over which means that, for a comedy, it's surprisingly hard to laugh at. Harmon's writing is best when he's laying out snappy dialogue, and the most engaging moments are between Sherri and Roberta, the lady charged with finding a host of (suitably diverse) photographs for the school brochure. The miscommunication between the two, Roberta's lack of understanding at Sherri's obsession is layered and very real.

These scenes also shine because of Alex Kingston and Margot Leicester who put in detailed, nuanced and believable performances. Kingston is barely off stage throughout the whole thing and yet the show still feels like an ensemble piece – always the sign of an excellent lead performer. She manages the complexity – mother/worker/human – of her role beautifully. Sarah Hadland, as Sherri's friend is also great in a generally very strong cast.

Aukin's slick production uses Paul Wills' static kitchen-front room set without hefty scene changes and bleeds the days and months into each other. It's a clever production of a script which doesn't deliver on its final A-grade.