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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Trafalgar Studios  Spring 2019

A well-defined debate on timely issues presented with the intense passion of characters whose lives are directly affected by their moral and social beliefs, this import from New York is a drama with real meat to it, and the occasion of some bravura acting not always available in contemporary plays.

If playwright Joshua Harmon has to define and manipulate his characters and situation a little to allow for the debate, that's a small and acceptable price.

The play is set in an American prep school, the equivalent of British public schools that is to say, very much not public but an enclave of the well-off, privileged and generally white.

Sherri is the school's admissions officer, a liberal sincerely dedicated to opening the school to non-traditional students or, in her studiously PC terms, people of colour. The irony that this makes her more aware of students' race and more inclined to think in terms of racial quotas is lost on her, if not on the audience.

But that bit of unconscious liberal inconsistency is not the main issue. When Sherri's graduating son Charlie misses out on acceptance to an elite university while a less qualified black student gets in, Sherri and Charlie (There's also the husband/father, something of a non-entity) have to face the challenge of living by their own professed values.

The mother's immediate instinct is to use all their connections i.e. the tools of their class and racial privilege to pull strings and get the boy in. In several sequences of intense and anguished self-examination she is forced to face the realisation that she doesn't really believe what she preaches, not when it comes down to her own son.

Alex Kingston makes what could in less sensitive hands be the comic exposure of a ridiculous character sympathetic and even tragic.

Meanwhile the boy faces for the first time in his life the experience of being prejudiced against, and is almost broken by it. In a powerful and extended screed against the unfairness of a world that doesn't deliver what he had been brought up to consider his birthright, young actor Ben Edelman allows us to see the irony but also the real anguish of the lad.

And then playwright Harmon takes things a step deeper by letting the boy progress past his pain where his parents can't. Charlie announces he is not going to go to university at all, leaving his spot open to some disadvantaged kid.

We are not blind to the adolescent over-dramatisation of the gesture, but it does take the debate onto a new level and intensify the human drama of the play.

Admissions is not perfect. The two central characters so dominate things that the rest of the roles are underwritten, leaving actors struggling to work with the little they're given. And Charlie is a little too clear-thinking and eloquent for even a bright eighteen-year-old.

But Admissions intelligently and sympathetically explores the complexities and self-contradictions of liberalism, shows us the real pain of people trying earnestly to live up to their own standards, and offers two strong acting roles. It is one of the most satisfying serious dramas of recent years.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Admissions - Trafalgar Studios 2019
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