Helena Payne reviews Alex Kingston in Admissions by Joshua Harmon now playing at Trafalgar Studios, London.
Sherri Rosen-Mason played by Alex Kingston is head of Admissions at an aspirational school; she lives in an aspirational house with an aspirational kitchen and her aspirational husband, the headteacher. Her only son Charlie Luther Mason has aspirations of attending Yale but is unsuccessful where his best friend Perry (who also happens to be “a quarter black”) triumphs. Sherri’s life’s work: “making the school less white; the “noble” task of upping the diversity quotas to 20% is put under scrutiny as she attempts to support her son through his bitter disappointment and defend the system that, on this occasion, has worked to his detriment.
Race seems to be the theatrical hot potato de rigueur. After his hit show Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon turns his attention to whiteness or more specifically liberal whiteness. It’s a tad uncomfortable and quite surprising to see a play on race in modern-day America performed by an all-white cast, but as Said’s theories of otherness purport, whiteness must be examined as its own entity rather than as an assumed state of neutrality, and I assume this is what Harmon was attempting to do with the casting.
The performances across the board are strong, most notably from Alex Kingston who shares some agonising moments with the audience as we see her rearranging her thoughts and reactions to maintain her idealised image of herself. Ben Edelman is simultaneously infuriating and pitiful as the hard-working son who doesn’t get his happily ever after at Yale but, in his tirade, makes some pertinent points about how race and privilege are not always inextricably linked. There is deft comedy from Margot Leicester who represents a more honest and old-fashioned racism in the face of Sherri’s irreproachably sculpted doublespeak such as “find me minorities who read black in photographs.” Cringe. Whilst Sarah Hadland as Sherri’s best friend and the mother of Perry brings some moments of genuine pathos whilst remaining wince-inducingly problematic. However, no one is quite so unsavoury as Ben’s dad played Andrew Woodall. Compared to his hot-headed son and hypocritical wife he probably lives his politics most thoroughly but lacks any compassion to the point of repulsion.
I enjoyed this play. I genuinely laughed at the writing and I feel it confronts some topical taboos. Focusing on liberal white identity it boldly puts characters on stage who are neither wicked nor heroic. Indeed, the fundamentally flawed people we see in Admissions occupy the grey space in morality that most of us, if we were honest with ourselves, probably occupy. Undeniably, when it comes to self-advancement everyone uses what they have to get ahead be it money, influence or the ability to put a tick in the box that puts you on a shorter list. So perhaps Harmon is speaking most transparently through his central character when she pronounces, “If no one fixated on it, nothing would ever change.” In Admissions Harmon’s fixation on whiteness is a necessary contribution to the wider conversation about race and identity politics we are seeing in theatre and the cultural landscape at large.