Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest production, Admissions, is a gripping, satirical, no holds barred, verbal boxing match about privilege, diversity, and freedom of choice.
Admissions stars Kat Stewart as Sherri Rosen-Mason, the Admissions officer at an elite school, Hillcrest. Right by her side is husband and Principal of the school Bill Mason, played by Simon Maiden, and her son, Charlie Luther Mason, played by William McKenna.
As the head of Admissions, Sherri’s main goal at Hillcrest is to increase the diversity of its students. The play opens with a scene with Sherri and fellow colleague Roberta, played by Deidre Rubenstein, as the get into a heated discussion over the lack of diversity in the school’s admissions brochure. Sherri complains the brochure is ‘too white’ and lacks diverse representation. Claiming that a person of colour wouldn’t want to seek admission at Hillcrest if they don’t see people like them within the one document that is meant to sell the school to them.
Representation is extremely important. Even more so when it comes to areas of society that are generally populated to the privileged white, upper middle class. I thought to myself, this is a very important topic to discuss. However, it was when Roberta throws back some counterpoints that lead to Sherri taking her argument just that little bit further than I expected that had me questioning her motives.
Is Sherri only wanting more people of colour in her admissions brochure so that a larger, more diverse population end up enrolled at Hillcrest that then leads to a ‘better look’ for the school?
This morale tennis match continues throughout the play. Just as you begin to side with one character’s argument, a counterpoint is made that sends the other over the edge, undoing all the valid points they just made. The already intense atmosphere receives a lightning bolt charge of energy when Sherri’s son, Charlie, an over privileged white male, is deferred from his admission into Yale. Yet his long-time friend, a child of bi-racial parents and a lower academic standard to Charlie, is accepted and Charlie questions ‘why’.
Admissions is controversial yet intelligent with its dialogue and I have to commend writer Joshua Harmon on what he has created. Harmon has perfectly captured the thrill of having a heated yet intelligent discussion with your peers. The feeling of an argument that leads to more questions than answers. But what I really admired about this piece was how Harmon had me on one character’s side but then undid all their hard work with a single counterpoint. Harmon is also not afraid to bring to life what people are really thinking.
Harmon’s work is only enhanced by the fantastic direction from Gary Abrahams, who has also directed Harmon’s work before with a production of the show, Bad Jews. Costume and lighting by Kat Chan and Amelia Lever-Davidson respectively are great. But for me, it is the stage that takes the cake with set designer Jacob Battista utilising every inch of the relatively small Southbank Theatre Stage with an intricately detailed, revolving set consisting of a fully kitted out Admissions office on one side, a fully functional kitchen and living space in the other, complete with a working kitchen sink. Yup, Battista thought of everything, even the kitchen sink. Not to mention the large staircase leading up to Charlie’s bedroom. Even the void of side of stage was filled in with rows of bookshelves. Definitely one of the better sets I have seen in a long time.
All of the brilliant work from the production crew is harnessed completely from each of the performers on stage. I empathised with Deidre Rubenstein’s Roberta and the frustration in her voice as she pleaded with Sherri to detail exactly what she wants with the brochure. Heidi Arena is great as Sherri’s best friend Ginnie Petters. Simon Maiden as Bill Mason is the perfect example of a father that not only wants what is best for his child but is not afraid to demand it from them. And of course, Kat Stewart is fantastic as the ‘do as I say, but not as I do’ mother. Every single member of the cast is amazing and effortlessly draw you right into the soul of their characters.
Then there is William McKenna. Wow. I remember seeing McKenna as Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and was completely blown away by his performance. His execution as Charlie Luther Mason in Admissions is no exception. There is just something so special with how expressive McKenna is that is truly captivating. McKenna uses every limb, every octave in his voice, and every prop on stage to bring to life the overly frustrated, confused, and angry teenager that Charlie becomes. McKenna also has one of the most intense monologues I have heard on stage in what seems like forever, and he executed it flawlessly. I said it when I saw Cursed Child and I will say it again, William McKenna is quickly becoming one of my favourites of Australian Theatre.
Admissions is a thought-provoking discussion on white privilege, gender equality and racial diversity. Admissions not only highlights the fact that diversity and representation are extremely important, but it also highlights the darker side of diversity within organisations and the decisions made.
Is it actual diversity they are seeking? Or is it diversity for diversities sake to just improve the school’s public image? Is it actually better to select an under-qualified individual over the perfect candidate just because they tick a certain box?
One thing is for sure, Admissions will have you thinking about it and the topics raised long after you have left the theatre. It may even drive you to engage in your own verbal boxing match with your peers.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s Admissions is now playing at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until the 11th of April.
EDIT: The show has now been extended to the 12th of April.
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Photography by Jeff Busby.