Review: Admissions at Cambridge Arts Theatre holds a mirror up to white middle class hypocrisy
If you’re wondering how a Cambridge audience would react to play about rich, white, privately educated kids feeling outraged when they miss out on a place at an elite university - the answer is it went down a storm
Admissions, starring Alex Kingston and Sarah Hadland, is an extremely timely play. It opened in London on the night that the story broke of wealthy Americans allegedly buying a university place for their children.
And it comes to Cambridge a few weeks after a headline in The Times described ‘Private school woe over rise of state pupils at Oxbridge’, where the headmaster of a large public school complained that “social engineering” had ““successfully driven down the number of Oxbridge places awarded to privately educated pupils”
Joshua Harmon’s play aims to skewer the hypocrisy of white liberals who pay lip service to wanting to ‘increase diversity’ at their New England prep school and improve to fortunes of black and ethnic minority students.
But when schemes to do exactly that may affect their own son’s chance of securing a place at an Ivy League university, she is less sure of those views.
Admissions follows the story of Sherri (Alex Kingston), who is head of Admissions at a private school where she has been trying hard to diversify the student intake.
When her son is deferred from his university of choice and his biracial friend - who ‘ticks more boxes’ - is accepted, her personal ambition collides with her progressive values and she is forced to make a choice between her beliefs and what is right for her son.
In the opening scene Kingston starts out tetchy and self righteous as she berates the kindly but confused school’s development officer Roberta, played with perfect pitch by Margot Leicester. She is furious that there are too few black faces in the school prospectus. Sherri storms that students ‘of colour’ need to see faces like theirs in the brochure or they won’t apply to the school.
She is determined to increase the ratio of BAME students in the school, currently sitting at 18 per cent and up from six per cent when she started working there 15 years ago.
Roberta says she hadn’t noticed that there were only white faces in the brochure and that she ‘doesn’t see race’. This infuriates Sherri who is acutely aware of every non-white child and she sees it as her life’s work to create more opportunities at the school for children from non-white backgrounds.
So, when her friend Ginnie - in a moving performance by Sarah Hadland - discovers her biracial son Perry has won a place at Yale, Sherri should be delighted. And she is until she discovers her own son Charlie - Ben Adelman - has not been given a place.
Charlie returns home after spending hours screaming in the woods and lets rip a furious tirade against diversity quotas that he feels have benefited his friend but deprived him of a place.
His speech is the standout scene in the play as he spits bile about feeling he shouldn’t have to hate himself for being white, male and rich. It had echoes of all the men who spoke out following the #MeToo movement complaining of confusion about no longer being able to sexually harass their work colleagues. He received a burst of applause at the end but it was unclear whether the admiration was for his performance - excellent - or for his views.
This is the crux of the play - it asks whether privileged white people can profess to want more opportunities for their black peers if it means giving up some of the benefits they have always enjoyed? You can't actually have equality without sharing the wealth.
It seems not for Sherri, who wonders if they know anyone at Yale who can pull in a favour for them. Her husband, played by Andrew Woodhall, is furious that Charlie is spouting ‘Republican’ views. But later is furious when Charlie has a change of heart and realises the world may be too ‘male and pale’ after all. Charlie tells his parents to spend his university fees on another school scholarship for an under-privileged child.
Sherri, a champion for diversity when it suits her, is now horrified at the course of action he plans to take in order to make ‘room at the table’ for new faces.
Alex Kingston’s performance as Sherri is emotionally wrenching as she goes from total certainty in the first scene to howling with frustration at the end and finally understanding her own hypocrisy.
The play is guaranteed to cause plenty of discussion for the audience afterwards.