Tuesday, 18 June 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: Admissions - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Where do you stand on white privilege? I thought my position was clear cut but this production has managed to get under my skin and question my moral stance to the absolute core. Centred around a Liberal New England family, Josh Harman’s thought-provoking story spans the final academic year of school for the Mason family and their only son Charlie Mason, as he applies for college.

On the opening night of the run at Salford, the Lowry’s premier 1,700 seat theatre was packed out after a hit run of the production on the West End and it was clear to see why. The set design alone was astonishingly naturalistic as you entered the theatre with a stunning interior of an affluent home, complete with fully functioning kitchen and stairwell leading to the upstairs. The clever use of naturalism on stage was soon defied by the opening scene jumping to the downstage location of the protagonist Sherri Rosen-Mason’s school admissions office at an elite New England school. Despite this stylistic introduction to the different locations, the settings and scenes skilfully maintained the naturalistic style of the two locations which were present throughout the play.

Alex Kingston (whose theatre, TV and film credits are too many to mention) offered the star appeal of the show and portrayed the role of Sherri with likeability from the outset. As School Admissions Officer for a fee-paying American boarding school, she raised so many questions about creating diversity in a privileged society, particularly when using her own position to privilege her son’s free education. Sherri’s moral stance seems straightforward, until it comes into question when her son’s best friend (who happens to be of ‘mixed heritage’) gains a place at Yale and her own son does not. What is uncovered is a desperate woman who will go to any lengths to get her son into any college of worth.

In the scenes at home, the dynamic of the Mason family is dominated by son, Charlie (Ben Edelman). In the initial disappointment of his college application, one can’t help but feel sorry for him but as he delivers his lengthy monologue about positive discrimination which has overlooked him and given his best friend a place at Yale. But what Harman uncovers in his writing walks a very thin line towards what father, Bill Mason (Andrew Woodall) calls ‘selfish’, ‘racist’ and ‘republican’. Woodall has fantastic timing and (for a while) seems to be the voice of reason on stage. Ben Edelman’s portrayal of Christopher is, at times frantic but brilliantly acted to demonstrate his utter frustration at a system which has unfair rules.

Harman’s writing doesn’t give Kingston much opportunity to shine in the family setting as her son and his ranting dominates many of the scenes taking place at home. But it is in her relationship with Roberta, the data manager (in charge of the school prospectus) where we see Kingston’s true talents at work. The scenes between these two actresses were some of the liveliest and entertaining of the production. Margot Leicester’s innocent portrayal of the ‘old school’ Roberta demonstrated the ignorance of the older generations about white privilege, by juxtaposing this with how ludicrous Sherri’s requests to include the ethnic minority students in the photographs of the school prospectus.

It is in the two supporting roles of Roberta and Ginnie Peters where we find the most pathos. Ginnie (played by Sarah Hadland), isn’t an instantly likeable character and Hadland plays the ‘soccer mom’ role perfectly. But it is in her character’s moral stance on the matter of white privilege where you are left feeling ashamed for any sympathy you may have given other characters and suddenly, I found myself asking the question nobody wants to ask themselves: am I a product of white privilege? Do I inadvertently discriminate or do I allow discrimination to happen?

The show had quite a fierce advertising campaign before it arrived in Salford and one of many adverts described it as a comedy. Although there were elements of hilarity at the hypocrisy of the characters, I would struggle to call this a comedy. That said, it was compelling and the full 105-minute performance (with no interval) and did not fail to entertain. The cast of five, all delivered brilliant performances, managing to make you laugh at them, love them, hate them and even feel sorry for them, in equal measures and this was a testament to brilliant direction by Daniel Aukin and a really clever script. It is witty, relevant and a great night’s entertainment. I would thoroughly recommend you catch this one as it is most certainly a piece of theatre which will stay with you long after the curtain falls.

Reviewer - Johanna Hassouna-Smith
on - 17/6/19

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