Race. class and educational bias make a combustible mix in Daniel Aukin's production of Joshua Harmon's daring and provocative hit US play Admissions (Trafalgar Studios).
The setting is a progressive New Hampshire school, where Sherri, head of admissions, boasts of having increased the proportion of students of colour to 18%. But her white liberal credentials are stretched beyond breaking point when her son Charlie is rejected by Yale, whereas his best friend Perry, who "ticks more boxes" is accepted. It so happens that Perry, with a white mum and biracial dad, is classified as black, and this leads Charlie into a hysterical rant against all forms of positive discrimination. His parents are suitably appalled, but even more horrified when a penitent Charlie decides to expose the advantages enjoyed by his privileged caste.
Harmon lays bare the hypocrisies of the liberal left through satirical comedy–Sherri frets over the need to give the school's prospectus the right racial balance and, accused of favouring students of colour, remarks "some of my best friends are white!" But the play's real target is a system that gives a head start to those who go to prestigious universities: we are reminded that Ivy league graduates make up a tiny percentage of the population but dominate key professions. One of Harmon's sharpest blows shows the desperate attempts of Charlie's parents to bend the system to ensure their son keeps his place at the top table.
Alex Kingston, of ER and Doctor Who fame, makes a perfectly odious Sherri, capturing the double standards of managed, office-based equality, whilst Andrew Woodall convinces as her brusque, blustering husband. American actor Ben Edelman as their adolescent, tantrum-throwing son, overplays Charlie's initial diatribe and is more effective when he calms down. Fine support is provided by Sarah Hadland as Sherri's distressed best friend, and Margot Leicester as a survivor from an era that believes personal qualities matter more than mathematical quotas.
This is not an easy play to digest with so many conflicting emotions and arguments and is needlessly overwrought at times which weakens the playwright's occasional sharp and thoughtful points. But it will certainly make many theatregoers wrestle with their consciences.
Plays at Trafalgar Studios until Saturday 25 May 2019.
Box office: 0844 871 7632.
Photo: Johan PerssonLast modified: April 6, 2021