Admissions, written by Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews) opened at the Trafalgar Studios last night, on the same day Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman was arrested as part of a huge FBI sting on rich parents who had bribed and cheated their kids into elite US colleges. Liberal superiority and didactic posturing is a red hot topic these days, as its failure opens the door for repugnant right-wing extremes. Meanwhile, the vast majority have started to regard both as two sides of the same elite coin. The FBI investigation has merely exposed an age-old reality. That the rich and powerful on both sides still grease the wheels and run the show is no revelation, but there is a new focus on the increasing resentment that too many on the left preach self-satisfied social lectures from their ivory towers without actually getting their hands dirty. This, in turn, has allowed the opportunist far right to tear down liberal values along with their flawed idols.
Admissions grabs the issues by the horns with a white upper-middle-class family whose painfully smug Liberal credentials come crashing down around them.
Alex Kingston’s Sherri has made it her life’s work to increase the diversity of admissions at the elite private school where her husband Bill is the principal. She sees herself as a warrior for equality and even gave her white Jewish son Charlie the middle name Luther. When he fails in his lifelong dream to get a place at Yale while his biracial (and apparently less academically able) best friend does, it’s not long before she is trying to pull strings to help him. Her certainties and moral superiority unravel even more as her son begins to take a stand that actually involves self-sacrifice for the greater good – and she finds she can’t accept it.
Kingston can pack more playful, complex, layered humanity into one “hello sweetie” than most would struggle to convey across 90 minutes. Yet, even she struggles with a character who is little more than the sum of a long overdue clash between her icy principles and maternal fires. As a result, it is a little shouty in the absence of any real depth.
In fact, the play too-often megaphones its insights and intentions rather than allow the audience to come to them of its own accord. Worse, it deploys its characters to manipulate our reactions.
Admissions review with Alex Kingston and Sarah Hadland
Ben Edelman transfers across from the original New York production and fully inhabits Charlie. His histrionics are the heart of the play, if a little overwritten, and build to an impressive finale which Edelman delivers in showstopping style.
He is the audience’s guide and voice – and the only character who has any kind of arc, any kind of development. First, he exposes understandable and relatable self-pity, railing against the modern plight of the white educated male, assaulted on all sides. It is echoed in Margot Leicester’s entertaining Roberta, the mouthpiece of an older generation who “does not see colour” and doesn’t understand why everyone always has to make such a fuss about issues.
Charlie grows up when he becomes the only character on stage to realise that true change can only come when someone privileged steps aside and gives up their space to someone else.
Admissions echoes Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin scandal
Andrew Woodall’s acerbic father, Bill, is the biggest problem with Harmon’s construct. His character is so unlikable it simply becomes irritating.
Would he really be so insensitive and unforgiving when his only son is dealt the biggest blow of his young life? It is hard not to feel the playwright’s ill-veiled frustration and contempt for such smug Liberal posing.
Yes, there is a sense of catharsis when Charlie finally cuts his parents down and eviscerates their self-satisfied sense of moral superiority. What good are your self-avowed principles when they cost you nothing, he blasts? What value your compassion and concern for others less fortunate when you remain comfortably and safely far away (and above) them?
These are good points but hardly new. Accusations thrown at the ‘wet elitist left’ are no more insightful than those thrown at the ‘monstrous uncaring right.’ But they are points that still need to be made, especially on the topic of elitist college streaming and the subsequent self-perpetuating stratifying of society.
Admissions review with Alex Kingston
Sarah Hadland’s Ginnie, Sherri’s best friend, makes the point earlier when they clash and she throws her mixed-race husband’s lack of advancement against’s Bill easy rise to the top. Unfortunately her character has a slightly buffoonish first act where she trumpets her disgust at all-white establishments but still buys her favourite cupcakes from some notorious ‘paedophile’ baker. What a silly liberal hypocrite. Her second act fury and disappointment with Sherri’s actions feels a little contrived as a lifelong friendship evaporates with little real impact.
This reflects the play as a whole. It is relentlessly written, with sweeping monologues and sharp one-liners. It successfully raises a number of powerful issues and forces the audience to consider whether their own actions ever match their words and intentions. It is passionately performed by a committed cast.
But it doesn’t quite come alive. It feels like a lecture rather than a conversation.
Admissions review: Liberal values tear a family apart
Real drama and a more profound truth might be found in this thought-provoking set up if we cared or at least empathised with the characters. Yes, we recognise some of their failings as our own but the people on stage remain concepts, constructs whose sole purpose is to illustrate a point.
It is a valid and valuable point – but ultimately it is not a point well made because the play fails to bring the characters, and so the audience, to life. The play remains slightly stuck in its own ivory tower.
ADMISSIONS AT THE TRAFALGAR STUDIOS: TICKETS AND BOOKING INFO HERE