Admissions at the Trafalgar Studios: ‘well deserving of a passing grade’
Who remembers the UCAS application process? Given it’s almost seven years since I had to apply to university, it would be a lie if I said I did. But I do remember the pressures of applying for further education, especially the feeling that your life’s work until that point is about to be judged. In a moment of Janus-like sagacity, our past becomes the sole focus in a moment that (it feels) will define our future. Fail to get into your chosen university and life, it seems, might as well cease to exist. Such is the fun of the process of admissions into university. This pivotal moment of personal reflection is captured in Admissions by Joshua Harmon, a plosive unveiling of one mother’s quest to reconcile her son’s disappointment at not getting into his first-choice university whilst also managing her job as head of admissions at another American university.
Sherri Rosen-Mason, played by Alex Kingston, is head of admissions at Hillcrest prep school, where through sheer determination she has seen an increase in BAME students from 6% to 18%. Admissionsbegins with Sherri calling in Roberta (Margot Leicester) to her office to discuss the new prospectus for the college. Sherri’s professional role of increasing diversity is tested when her son Charlie (Ben Edelman), a (white,) high-achieving, extra-curricular engaged student is rejected from his first choice institution. What follows is a loud unveiling of our own prejudices and an exploration of the conspiracy-like narratives that we adopt to allow for failure.
Paul Wills’ set design depicts an affluent, upper-middle class family kitchen. Between this and James Perkins’ work on Monogamy, I never expected to feel home envy in the theatre, but here we are! A stylish and sleek finish and a large island however soon becomes littered with wine glasses, cake boxes and tortilla ingredients. The life of a worker in education if ever I saw one.
Yet for a play about increasing racial diversity, the all-white cast strike an ironic note. Peri, Charlie’s friend, has managed to secure a place at his desired institution but this is put down to his race. Yet we never see this character, who awkwardly sits at the periphery of the production like Godot. Does this casting emphasise the point of the show? Probably, but it’s rather jarring nonetheless.
Under Daniel Aukin’s direction, the entire cast put in performances that capture the taut desperation and wild oscillations of emotion – hope, anger, and frustration, to name a few – that come with applying for further education. Andrew Woodall as Bill Mason, Sherri’s husband and Charlie’s father, has the jaded comedy of a father frustrated with his son. Kingston explores Sherri’s hypocrisy with a professional robustness that collapses, as expected, when her family is at stake, whilst Edelman’s shouty Charlie captures the hyperbole of a teenage sensibility. From all of this stirs a manic energy that, in trying to understand what Charlie sees as an instance of institutional persecution, can lead to loud scenes that work well, if rather overdone.
Harmon’s script is full of funny lines and moments and I’m sure the observation ‘I don’t think childhood dreams should cost $60,000’ is one all students at London universities would agree with. Admissions is a tactful show that for me is well deserving of a passing grade. Sherri comments ‘We are not talking of minorities, we are talking about [my son].’ The power of Admissionsis its ability to make us realise how easily we use these slight caveats to allow for failures throughout our life, but maybe it is time we become more ready to accept our faults and failings as our own and not as the imperative of an anonymous admissions tutor.
Admissions is at the Trafalgar Studios until the 25th May, 2019.
Feature and production photographs: Johan Persson.