Review: Admissions

Jessica Murdoch 4 June 2019
Image Credit: Johan Persson

In his multi-award winning dark comedy Bad Jews (2013), playwright Joshua Harmon proved his prowess in exploring weighty cultural and religious arguments through hilarious family relationships. With this in mind, my expectations for the first touring production of his latest work, Admissions, which similarly explores far-reaching debates within a single family home, were high. Despite Harmon’s previous work having raised the metaphorical grade boundaries, I can confidently say that this production passed with flying colours.

Sherri Rosen-Mason (Alex Kingston) and her husband (Andrew Woodall), Head of the Admissions Department and Headmaster of a private New England prep school respectively, are on a mission to diversify the student body. Despite celebrating her successes in increasing BME student representation, when her son is deferred entry to Yale for ‘not ticking enough boxes’ she sees less cause for celebration. Admissions brings to the forefront the hypocrisies which underlie white liberalism, demonstrating with acerbic wit how the conflict between progressivism and self interest inhibits meaningful change.

It is evident that Harmon and director Daniel Aukin have a history of working together, as the production perfectly captured and enhanced both the sincerity and comedy offered in the script. In a particularly potent moment of direction, Sherri’s son Charlie (Ben Edelman) turned to face the audience while acknowledging the injustice of ‘elite spaces’ being filled with ‘white people’, provoking uncomfortable glances within the sea of white faces which filled the auditorium. Paul Wills’ set and Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design visually emphasised this issue; the huge, glistening all-white kitchen interior, stocked with fine wines and (apparently) unpronounceable Italian cookies bought from a morally dubious baker, provided a suitably inappropriate setting for supposedly sincere discussions of white privilege.

To bring to life this wonderful script were an equally fabulous and perfectly cast team of actors. It is difficult to single out any one performer, although special mention must go to the trio playing Mason family. Edelman captures the angst and outrage of 17 year-old Charlie who (seemingly for the first time in his life) does not get exactly what he wants, squeezing out all the ridiculousness of his hysteria without ever becoming unbelievable. Some of the most powerful and provocative arguments come from husband and father Bill, performed wonderfully by Woodhall who not only has the most superb American accent, but completely owns the stage every time he glides into one of his brilliantly written rants. Finally, Kingston in the central role of Sherri triumphantly depicts the character’s outrageous hypocrisy whilst maintaining a hold of the audience’s sympathy. While all three display brilliant comic timing and delivery, some of the most affecting moments in the production are when they hold the space together in silence, particularly following a climatic outburst in the penultimate scene which leaves the audience and characters suspended in  palpable tension and anticipation.

The only moments which let Admissions down were the scenes between Sherri and Roberta (Margot Leicester), particularly those which opened and closed the play; unlike the convincing and nuanced interactions within the Mason family home, the conversations between these two characters felt a little underdeveloped and heavy handed, and in comparison to the rest of the production the deterioration in Sherri’s moral conviction, marked by the parallelism between the first and final scenes, felt incongruously over-theatrical. That said, these minor peeves are not enough to detract from the overall impact of the production. Hilarious, unsettling, and hugely provocative, Admissions certainly ‘ticks all the boxes’; be sure not to miss the entry deadline (it’s only here until Saturday!)