Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Produced by Simon Friend, Trafalgar Theatre Productions, Eilene Davidson and Gavin Kalin, in association with Anthology Theatre
Lowry Lyric Theatre
17 June 2019 - 22 June 2019; 100min, no interval
Premiered in New York a year ago and now concluding a short post-London UK tour at The Lowry, Joshua (Bad Jews) Harmon’s latest up-front comedy has been both raved about and panned, the latter reaction mostly on this side of the pond.
It’s been recast for the UK, starrily so in fact, with Alex Kingston (ER, Doctor Who) and Sarah Hadland (Stevie in Miranda) in the female leads, with strong support down the line and a snazzy production directed by Daniel Aukin, who was in charge of the original at the Lincoln Centre Theatre.
So, who’s right – is it a bitingly funny observation on aspects of middle-class angst, or The Stage's “not worth the air fare to bring it over here”?
We’re in a progressive New Hampshire school, where head of admissions Sherri (Kingston), boasts she has increased the proportion of students of colour to 18 per cent and is pushing hard to get that up to 20 per cent.
Meanwhile her son Charlie (Ben Edelman, reprising his New York role) doesn’t get into Yale, while his best friend, Perry, has been accepted. Perry, with a white mother and bi-racial father, is classified as black.
Charlie launches into a very lengthy rant against all forms of positive discrimination, at which his parents react in a suitably appalled manner but become even more horrified later when Charlie decides to cast aside the advantages enjoyed by his privileged upbringing, leading his mother to then follow with some desperate attempts to try to bend the system
It’s about race, discrimination – positive and negative – and in particular, liberal white guilt, underlining the fact that going to a prestigious university gives people a head start in adult life. It’s quite a lot of ground to cover.
It’s very smart, in a staccato American sit-com sort of way, which definitely draws you in and keeps your attention right through a fairly long, interval-less sit. It’s particularly topical over there, where wealthy Americans have recently been accused of buying their offspring places at top academic institutions. We haven’t had that fuss over here recently as it’s always been a part of our system, but it is a relevant subject to discuss. There are plenty of shades of grey in Harmon’s script that help to take off a too-sharp edge that sometimes goes for laughs rather than delving deeper. It is, by the way, a comedy - often funny, but also often just a little uncomfortable to laugh at.
Performances are pretty much excellent. Kingston’s anguished mother is hardly off stage and hers is undoubtedly a starring role. But Hadland as the best friend also distressed by the situation, Andrew Woodall’s hard-hitting husband and Margot Leicester’s voice from days gone by, are all also spot on. Edelman, as the son at the centre of it all, might have appealed more to American audiences than to me and his diction in particular isn’t as sharp as it needs to be for a British audience.
Overall, forget The Stage (whose reviewer must have had a bad day at the office or something), it’s definitely a play to argue about on the way home and remember as a slick piece of theatre that grips and entertains.
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