Admissions review: A funny look at the politics of diversity ★★★★

Alex Kingston shines as the mother who wants what’s best for everyone until it impacts on her son from Bad Jews writer Joshua Harmon

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American writer Joshua Harmon’s new play, fresh in the West End from a successful Broadway run, is a sharp piece of satire that takes aim at well-meaning liberals and what it sees as their contradictions and pieties.

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Sherri (Alex Kingston) is the head of admissions at Hillcrest, a highly ranked American college. During her tenure, the school’s diversity quota has trebled, to 18%, and is about to rise again. She’s fastidious about the numbers and focused on making sure diversity is properly represented.

But, as thorny issues of race and colour arise, the question of who actually gets to count as diverse proves far from black and white. Which is literally the problem for the hapless Roberta (Margot Leicester), who is putting together the school prospectus, without much success. What’s the correct number of students of colour to include? And how does she meet Sherri’s target when she herself considers one of the 18% white for the purposes of the brochure, as they’re too light-skinned. It’s funny watching her constantly get it wrong, but there’s a serious point behind the humour.

The main drama, though, concerns Sherri’s son and student, Charlie (Ben Edelman) – middle name Luther so that his parents can signal their virtue for Martin Luther King. When he doesn’t get into Yale, Charlie is seriously disappointed in a way only teenager can be. He’s even more vexed to find out that his best friend, Perry (who we never meet), has been accepted to the prestigious institution, despite slighter poorer grades. Perry also happens to be black.

The sometimes yawning chasm between the well-intended words of the liberal left and what they’re actually willing to do is evident. Especially when their ideals come up against what’s best for themselves and those close to them. Harmon sticks the knife in, gives it a good wiggle around, and provides a very funny evening of increasingly outlandish hypocrisy.

Alex Kingston gives a strong performance in Daniel Aukin’s production, that shows how the duality of heart and head can pull in different directions at the same time. Sarah Hadland, as Perry’s mum Ginnie, handles all the necessary sensitivities of a wife frustrated that her husband has been overlooked by prejudice while being indignant at the perception that her son was helped to overcome the same injustice. Andrew Woodall, as Sherri’s husband and head teacher, Bill, along with the rest of the cast, are all energetic and fun to watch.

If there is anything to mark Admissions down on, it’s that the dialogue can sometimes feel like an Oxford Union debate rather than a family rift, as verbose polemics and counter-arguments fly across the stage.

A comedy about identity politics won’t be for everyone, but as the play provocatively asks, to what lengths should we go in search of inclusivity for all?

Nick Wells

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Admissions is at Trafalgar Studios until 25 May, then touring. Information: Admisssionsplay.com