Theatre review - Admissions at The Lowry
PUBLISHED: 13:31 20 June 2019 | UPDATED: 13:31 20 June 2019
Serious questions are asked in this fast moving play by Joshua Harmon.
I have to admit, I didn't love this play. It's just too American, with the entire storyline set in a high-end, expensive US prep school and the characters stressing about entry into a high end US university, preferably Yale, but there are others (that we have never heard of) that will do. The writing is strong, the message relevant, and the cast great - but still, I felt less connected and engaged than were it, I think, set in a more recognisable location.
It does ask some serious questions however, which can be boiled down to: Is positive discrimination a good thing? The problem is, the answer is clear from word one: yes! White, male teen Charles (doesn't make the cut into Yale, whereas his best friend Perry (who we never meet) does. Charles argues that as he's academically brighter and does more extra-curricular activities, the only way Perry beat him to the place is because he's black. His rant, delivered at a fast pace and with heart-rending fury, makes for uncomfortable viewing. Here is a young man, who has done everything right - worked hard, kept his nose clean, done the sport, the school newspaper, the everything…and yet he's beaten to the thing he really, really did all this for by someone he believes rode in on a free pass. It's hard not to feel sympathy, to be honest, yet in a country where we know racism and sexism run rampant, a preppy white male is destined to succeed, whatever his alma mater.
It's also perhaps a case of preaching to the converted. A white middle-class audience filling a theatre for a 'serious' play is hardly likely to experience significant moments of lightbulbs flashing above their heads. You could almost feel the sage nodding of heads.
If we're left in any doubt about the answer, there's a beautiful scene in which Ginnie (Sarah Hadland) mother of Perry, a white woman married to a black man, becomes distraught when she realises that her son's best friend is bitter about his success. Her husband, she says, has fought every step of the way to his role as a teacher at this school, passed over repeatedly for other men, equally as qualified, but white - including Charles' own father, Dean of the school. She's not arguing for positive discrimination, just a fair shot - yet this never happens. Sadly, this is the only time when the undoubtedly talented Hadland has a chance to show her skills. The rest of the time she's reduced to the role of a cheerleader, bearing biscuits and cake, visiting her best friend (Charles' mother Sherrie) in her home.
I would have love to have seen Alex Kingston in the role of Sherrie; she was unfortunately not well on the night. It's a huge role: Sherrie is the Admissions Officer at the prep school. It has been her dedicated aim to improve the diversity of the school, taking it from 6% non-white to 18% in the years she's been there, and verging on 20% for the next intake. Her passion is real, her belief in the reasons for this true. And yet, when her son falls foul of the very system she seeks to build, she is torn. And torn again when Charles realises that his admissions make him part of the problem, and comes up with a drastic solution. Understudy Giselle Wolf did her best, I think, but never really clicked for me.
There are, however, among the endless ranting and heavy-handed sending of messages, there are some comedic moments. Sherrie is driven to distraction by a staff member (Margot Leicester) who seems to deliberately misunderstand her demands for a more diverse school catalogue. There's an excellent scene when a photo of Perry playing basketball is pointed out to Sherrie, who struggles though a very telling explanation of why that's not good enough, as Perry looks white. Her assistant is confused: he's either black, or his isn't, surely? On Sherrie's lists, he forms part of her diversity percentage, yet in her catalogue he doesn't? 'I'm colourblind!' she argues, 'I just see people!' Sherrie, it is clear, does not.