Alex Kingston (Sherri) Andrew Woodall (Bill) and Ben Edelman (Charlie) as their comfortable, liberal world is shaken to the core. Pictures: Johan Persson


Malvern Theatres


Sherri Rosen-Mason is head of admissions at Hillcrest, an up-market fee-paying New Hampshire college-prep school – sixth form colleges would be our nearest equivalent – and she is constantly striving to increase her percentage of minority students.

Her rather smug husband Bill (Andrew Woodall) is the school principal. They are the white, privileged, liberal couple at the centre of Joshua Harmon’s sharp, uncomfortable comedy.

In 15 years the oh so sure of herself Sherri (Alex Kingston) has increased the member of minority admissions from four to 18 per cent and her constant mantra is diversity with side helpings of equality and inclusivity in an admissions policy that embraces positive discrimination with missionary zeal.

Indeed, we open with Sherri admonishing Roberta (Margot Leicester), the development officer, for not getting enough people of colour in the photos for next year’s school brochure – only three in 52 photos.

We even have an argument about Perry, son of a white mother and a mixed-race father, who the school count as a person of colour . . . but he shows up as white on photographs. Too white for the brochure, but black enough for the stats.

The unfashionably un-PC Roberta is baffled, she doesn’t “see colour” nor is she a “race person” she tells us, she just picks nice photographs.

Sherri wants minorities in the brochure so prospective students – minority students that is – will feel they will be among other minorities - their own kind to put it crudely - so will apply and that is where positive discrimination awaits.

Now the problem with positive discrimination is that it is a misnomer, a myth, all smoke and mirrors, the positive being merely window dressing. The simple fact is that if you discriminate in favour of one particular group, then by simple logic, you are discriminating against another.

Which Harmon suggests, the white liberal elite are fine with . . . as long as it doesn’t cost them anything.

Enter Charlie, Sherri and Bill’s son, Perry’s best friend, and one of the high-flying stars of Hillcrest who has dreamed of going to Yale since he was eight. The only problem is that best friend Perry, who is less qualified academically, with less extra-curricular activities is accepted while Charlie is deferred – the implication being that Perry had that one extra bonus box to tick – the one denied to white kids.

Which leads to Charlie spending four hours in the woods screaming and then returning home to launch into a rant about privilege, discrimination, unfairness, a girl being made editor of the school newspaper even though she can’t write, his Jewish heritage, and a whole host of angst ridden thoughts. Not every word he utters is clear, it is a rant after all, but there is no mistaking the sentiments, frustration and anger of Charlie at what he sees as the unfairness of all that liberal discriminatory positivity.

It is an explosion of emotion from Ben Edelman, who, incidentally, has travelled over from playing the same role in the New York production.

Which leaves us with Ginnie (Sarah Hadland – last seen in these parts in the brilliant, gloriously funny What’s in a Name? at Birmingham Rep). Ginnie is Perry’s mother and Sherri’s best friend, She has a penchant for turning up with cakes and is delighted when Perry gets in to Yale – but the friendship is soured when she finds Charlie, and by implication, his family, have their own thoughts on why Perry got in and the better qualified Charlie didn’t – that extra box again.

There are more twists to come. Sherri is forced to question her own views on EDI – equality, diversity and inclusivity for those not up to speed on buzz acronyms – while Bill condemns his “racist spoiled little shit” of a son for having the temerity to question the way the world according to Bill works.

Then Charlie drops his own bombshell to put a rather large cat among the pigeons and putting Harmon’s question to the fore again, asking if white liberals are only that way while it costs them nothing as he tries to put a price on their ultra-liberal views, challenged them to put their money where their privileged mouth is.

Ginnie and Sherrie

Sarah Hadland as Ginnie and Alex Kingston as as Sherri as they hear Ginnie's son Perry has ben accepted by Yale

Harmon’s last play, Bad Jews, had its controversial themes of family and identity, and this goes further. The timing fits in with the current scandal in the US of the rich and privileged paying bribes to get their children into top universities, while Sherri tells us that going to Yale or any Ivy League university, opens the door to the world. Graduates from Ivy League colleges - think certain public schools and Oxbridge here - make up a minute portion of the population, yet occupy a big proportion of top jobs in business and politics.

For example, the programme tells us, Ivy League graduates represent 0.4 percent of students and 100 per cent of supreme court judges and 24 per cent of senators. In the UK Oxbridge has one per cent of graduates but 23 per cent of MPs and 74 per cent of senior judges.

The play raises questions and subjects that people don’t like to face, perhaps suggesting we are all hypocrites, happy to follow the liberal paths of righteousness as long as it doesn’t affect us, hints of Animal Farm’s Napoleon . . . “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”.

The acting is first class. We see Bill refusing to waver yet still using influence to get the best for his son, Sherri’s liberal ideals clashing with her instincts as a mother, Charlie’s anger turning 180 degrees to some sort of martyrdom, Roberta, old fashioned and harmless, who still cannot see colour and Ginnie finding that her life facing colour prejudice even extends to her friends when push comes to shove – or at least admissions to Yale.

The school had a star black pupil, a poster boy for Hillcrest, who is now a hot-shot lawyer – he is also an old boy who refuses to help the school financially. Ginnie tells us he was never happy at Hillcrest, and suddenly the door opens on the thought that the ever growing percentage of minority pupils at Hillcrest is a quest to impress liberal friends, with giving opportunities to minorities an afterthought rather than a reason. They are merely there to make up the numbers.

With Charlie in limbo, privilege finally beats principles and the survival instinct takes over. Bill and Sherri make a few calls, call in a few favours, even asking Ginnie to ask her relative who is a college dean, all to get Charlie into a decent college, which, phew, they manage and all is, once more, well with the world – except it is a somewhat battered world nursing a few dents and war wounds.

Directed, as in New York, by Daniel Aukin, 90 minutes flies by with a set that acts as office and home from Paul Wills helped by some clever lighting from Oliver Fenwick, the off stage light creating shadows at the base of the stairs being particularly effective,

The result is a powerful, thought-provoking play that makes you question many things, things to which, perhaps, we only pay lip service, or we ignore or avoid, or champion, but only as long as we are immune from its effects.

Incidentally, this is a play about diversity, yet is written specifically for five white actors and is playing to predominantly white audiences. Perhaps Harmon knows exactly where his scalpel is poised, exactly who he is talking to . . . To 15-06-19

Roger Clarke


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