Reviewed – 13th March 2019
“Every element of Admissions is running very smoothly, but it’s difficult not to feel like the whole thing is skirting around some realer issue”
The recent release of blockbuster superhero film Captain Marvel has seen a staggering spectrum of critiques crop up: some glowing, some vitriolic, and some more tepid. One of the more interesting arguments from the latter of those is that the film is riddled with ‘performative progressivism’ – that it heralds itself as part of a revolution in the representation of women heroes in Hollywood as though Marvel itself didn’t necessitate it with its previous twenty male-centric films. Joshua Harmon’s Admissions tries to dissect the role of performative progressivism in education – primarily university admissions – but the execution of the story raises questions as to whether the play falls victim to the very same thing.
Admissions opens with Sherri Rosen-Mason (Alex Kingston), an admissions officer at a prestigious school, chastising Roberta (Margot Leicester) for not taking diverse enough photos for their prospectus, as she’s hoping to raise the percentage of minority students to 20%. The sincerity of this belief is challenged, however, when her son Charlie (Ben Edelman) is deferred from Yale while his black friend Perry gets accepted despite them being otherwise nearly identical candidates, and so she and her husband Bill (Andrew Woodall) try to pull strings and exercise their privilege to secure a place for their son, and we see the perceived progressivism of Sherri is thrown firmly into doubt as soon as it affects someone related to her.
Harmon’s writing is explosive and satirical; Charlie’s first scene contains a venomous and entitled rant that sees him assert the notion that women and black students are only succeeding because of a need to fill quotas and ends with making a Nazi salute – it just about manages to toe the line between comedic and discomforting, despite a slightly overly-shouty performance from Edelman. Elsewhere, Sherri does her best to convince Roberta that she’s not discriminating against white people with her prospectus demands because some of her best friends are white. The performances all serve this excellently – Kingston’s stamina is exceptional, and Woodall brings a particularly stellar gravitas to his role, while Leicester wrings humour and pathos in equal measure for a beautifully measured performance.
Daniel Aukin ensures a slick pace with deft direction and scene changes that blend into each other, while Paul Wills’ set perfectly depicts the home of a white middle class family. Every element of Admissions is running very smoothly, but it’s difficult not to feel like the whole thing is skirting around some realer issue; it feels like the play at its heart is begging to critique the exclusive and privilege-ridden club that Ivy League universities (or the likes of Oxford and Cambridge here in the UK) have bred, and the opportunities that are only afforded to their graduates as a result. It comes across as hugely performative for the characters to preach the importance of making space at the table for a whole spectrum of people and identities while the play contains an all-white cast. Harmon even suggests in the programme that Admissions is a play about whiteness, but I have to wonder – do we need one?
Reviewed by Tom Francis
Photography by Johan Persson
Trafalgar Studios until 25th May
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