Amy Ng
Hampstead Downstairs

Theresa Banham and Jennifer Leong Credit: Robert Day
Bo Poraj Credit: Robert Day
Debbie Korley Credit: Robert Day

Amy Ng is clearly a highly intelligent and thoughtful writer who cares deeply about diversity issues. Acceptance is set in an Ivy League American university and takes on themes that will be familiar to fans of David Mamet from plays such as Oleanna and Race.

Jennifer Leong plays central character Angela Chan, a 17-year-old violin prodigy from Hong Kong with strong credentials to win a music scholarship at Elliott. However, competition is tough with over 37,000 students seeking a small number of places.

Her initial meeting with Theresa Banham’s aristocratic Birch Coffin, who is likely to decide her fate, does not go well. For reasons that only become clear later, the younger woman hides significant information that might affect her application but also proves easily ascertainable in the incestuous world of academe.

Having made one important enemy, by good fortune, Angela finds a friend in the same team. Debbie Korley is Mercy Jones, rather incongruously in this milieu, a black Yorkshirewoman with strident political views and an overwhelming desire to help those from minority backgrounds.

She has just been recruited to work another more senior new recruit, Ben Cohen, played by Bo Poraj. He is a handsome, laid-back former academic who takes a shine to his new assistant and, given a mandate to increase diversity, is initially happy to listen to the Chan story. When her secret is revealed, this proves to be devastating since the aspiring musician left her first American high school, following an unproven accusation of rape against one of her teachers.

The 80-minute-long drama concentrates on the validity and underlying facts that led to these allegations and also spread its net wider to consider some of the difficulties faced by women and those from minorities in trying to climb to the top of both the student ladder and its career parallel.

While the explosive politics are dealt with capably, too much of the plotting is rather clumsy, clearly developed to make points rather than ensure clear and consistent logic or characterisation, while the ending is both limp and heavy-handed.

Having said all of that, the issues and the manner in which they are explored, are genuinely fascinating and many viewers are likely to come out of the theatre considerably wiser than they were at the beginning of the evening, which initially builds to a scene of confrontation that has genuine power and perfectly showcases the acting talents of Jennifer Leong.

As such, Anna Ledwich’s production is well worth a visit and has many of the ingredients that might lead to a transfer to the main space at Hampstead or into one of the smaller West End houses, although in an ideal world the script might go through another draft or two before getting there.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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