Joshua Harmon
Trafalgar Studios

Alex Kingston and Sarah Hadland Credit: Johan Persson
Alex Kingston, Andrew Woodall and Ben Edelman Credit: Johan Persson
Alex Kingston and Andrew Woodall Credit: Johan Persson

Popular American playwright Joshua Harmon’s modus operandum is to take serious moral and ethical issues and dress them up in the guise of a light TV-style sitcom.

On this occasion, the effect is accentuated by the instructions given to a largely British cast by this writer’s regular director, Daniel Aukin.

In taking this approach, the playwright runs the serious risk of appearing to break the bounds of political correctness, treading a thin line between satirising the attitudes of well-meaning, highly educated Americans desperate to give the impression of supporting diversity while presenting views that are likely to be seen as abhorrent by those at the sharp end of prejudice, in this case racial.

Admissions centres on the Masons, a privileged, white New Hampshire family who dominate one of the country's most elite boarding schools.

Bill, played by Andrew Woodall, is its president, while his wife Alex Kingston’s Sherri runs the school’s admissions programme, desperate to improve an impression of racial imbalance. Even their 17-year-old son Charlie is the brightest kid in the establishment as well as one of its star sportsmen. What could go wrong?

In real life, probably very little. In Joshua Harmon's world, a great deal. The scene is set in a kind of prologue as hypocritical Sherri, the embodiment of unconscious bias, lays into an innocent colleague who fails to understand the school's policy on racial tokenism.

Matters come to a head when Charlie and his best friend Perry—who just happens to be black but is represented on stage by his white mother, Sarah Hadland playing Ginnie—apply to Yale. Predictably, given the genre, only one makes the grade.

This elicits an outrageous and outraged response that the disappointed teenager’s father accurately describes as a "racist, sexist screed". The rant is literally breathtaking and deeply shocking, although it did invoke a burst of spontaneous applause for actor Ben Edelman, who created the role at Lincoln Center Theatre.

It takes the boy months to see sense but, when he does so, roles and opinions instantly reverse as Charlie tries to make amends at the same time as his parents angrily rebel against his solution.

In this 100-minute-long play, nobody merely speaks when they can deliver a tub-thumping speech, while their views of life alter at the convenience of the playwright rather than in line with their original characterisation.

On the plus side, Joshua Harmon attempts to present a balanced vision of the unfairness that characterises life in the United States and our own country today, despite generations of effort to eradicate racial (and gender) prejudice.

Whether wittingly or otherwise, he makes it very clear why institutionalised racism continues to prosper despite the airy protestations of those in possession of power, i.e. the rich, white middle classes, who also coincidentally make up every character on show, meaning the play about racial diversity includes a cast with nothing of the kind.

While some viewers might have reservations of the kind identified in this review, those who can buy into Joshua Harmon’s satirical vision and accept a series of extreme opinions will love his sharp humour and appreciate the cynical light that he shines on many of his characters.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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