As the curtain rises on a comfortable, middle-class kitchen, adjoining a prosperous private school, it’s not hard to understand that we’re in a place of privilege. And yet Sherri Rosen-Mason, Head of Admissions at Hillcrest, is not happy. She’s berating one of her staff, Roberta, for not including enough photos of “students of colour” in their Admissions brochure.
Roberta (Margot Leicester) is confused – and on the defensive; the strained relationship between the two is palpable. “All that comes out of your mouth is ‘Diversity’”, she huffs. “And I don’t agree with what you’re saying: I don’t see colour”.
Sherri is unmoved. Coming across, initially, as humourless & brittle, she has only one thing on her mind – and that’s increasing the ratio of students of colour to white students. She has worked at this New Hampshire boarding school for 15 years – and that is her mission.
From these opening scenes we infer that this will not be an easy night’s viewing and that impression never changes – although the following scenes do reveal some warmth and vulnerability to Sherri, brilliantly played by Alex Kingston. Relaxing with her friend Ginnie (Sarah Hadland), we learn that both women have sons the same age and that both are partial to cake – and wine.
Their friendship is about to be tested to the limit with the news that Ginnie’s son, Perry, has been accepted into Yale – and that Sherri’s son, Charlie, hasn’t. And Perry is mixed-race – and Charlie isn’t. It’s the ramifications which follow this news with which the remainder of the play is concerned – and which make ‘Admissions’ compelling and compulsory viewing.
Charlie (Ben Edelman) is convinced that he’s been discriminated against (“I don’t have any special boxes to tick”) and his lengthy diatribe against the education system and the world in general leaves the audience shifting uncomfortably in their seats – and causes his father, Bill (Andrew Woodall), to call him “an over-privileged, spoilt little kid”. There will be no comfort here for Charlie – and anyway, should there be? That’s one of the harder questions this play asks and what causes the painful conflict between Sherri the educator and Sherri the mother.
Not an easy woman to like, Sherri: you admire her achievements whilst never really warming to her, although we do see a softer side to her when she’s with her son. Torn between wanting the best for Charlie (an Ivy League education) and her lifelong beliefs, she tries her best to be understanding but ends up alienating him and everyone else around her.
That includes Ginnie and the gradual disintegration of the two women’s friendship is painful to watch; the final scene between the two women is devastating. Anyone who has ever lost a friend will feel their pain keenly.
The Mason family is at a stand-off – and it’s anyone’s guess where it will go next. Into a world of conflict is the answer – with Sherri attempting to pull strings to get Charlie into another prestigious college and Charlie rebuffing her by announcing that he’s going to enrol at a community college. This is the hardest element of the play for a British audience to understand: generally speaking, we see further education as a positive, rather than a negative thing.
Whatever its merits, Charlie’s parents are unimpressed. Shocked, even. And herewith lies another intriguing theme: middle class aspirations for its offspring. I don’t have children of my own, but have witnessed this kind of behaviour many times within my own friends and family. It always leaves me asking: who do you want this for: your child – or yourself? That same question kept rolling around my brain as I watched Sherri, Bill and Charlie slug it out in front of me. “We love you – and we want what’s best for you”, is Sherri and Bill’s mantra. But do they? Or are they living vicariously through their son? Charlie believes the latter and the argument continues, the audience on the edge of their seats.
These are hefty issues for a 90-minute play to consider, especially when you add friendship, loyalty, ambition and family to the mix. Life is messy – and we often struggle with it: if there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that we’re not alone with that.
What, though, of Charlie and Perry? It would be remiss of me to reveal how ‘Admissions’ ends, but what I will say is this: if you’re looking for a relaxed, comfortable evening at the theatre, this 90-minute fireball is not for you. If, however, you enjoy being outside your comfort zone and asking challenging questions of yourself, I highly recommend seeing this taut, tense and riveting slice of theatre.