Cambridge, UK

Back to School: Reviewing Admissions, Cambridge Arts Theatre

The five star reviewed, award-winning Admissions has landed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge. Dubbed "the smartest, bravest play the West End has seen in years" by The Spectator, Cambridge audiences will be treated to performances featuring a host of famous faces from Monday 3rd to Saturday 8th June. Admissions played at London's Trafalgar Square before embarking on a national tour, with Cambridge being the first stop. Artspod kindly invited me to the press night to see the production for myself and to experience the Cambridge Arts Theatre venue for the very first time. The Theatre has a stellar reputation in East Anglia and beyond, having served as the venue that launched the careers of many notable names in theatre, including but not limited to Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. Read on to learn about my experience of the Theatre and its latest show.

The Theatre

The Arts Theatre has established itself as a prime destination for touring theatre. It hosts many shows coming directly from, or prior to, runs in the West End, as well as performances from illustrious names such as Shakespeare's Globe and The National Theatre. Located on St Edmunds Passage in the heart of Cambridge, the theatre presents a varied mix of drama, opera, dance, and pantomime. Seating 666 people, the theatre itself is a gorgeous mix of historic and modern. The entrance and Circle Bar area are contemporary and luxurious. My boyfriend and I enjoyed a glass of red wine in the Bar before the show and we found it to be a small but very comfortable place to sit and relax before the performance. The theatre itself, by contrast, shows its 1930s origins, with classic wood panelling and vintage seating. Despite its historicity, the seats were very comfortable and the stalls provided a totally unobstructed view of the stage.

Abbey stands in front of a poster for the theatre show Admissions, wearing a patterned shirt and glasses

Synopsis

From the desk of New York City playwright Joshua Harmon, Admissions follows Sherri, the Head of Admissions at Hillcrest, a private American boarding school. Sherri is a self-professed liberal whose raison d'être is to diversify the predominantly white student body at Hillcrest. As well as working tirelessly to increase the proportion of students of colour at her school to 18%, an achievement of which she is immensely proud, Sherri is also a mother who wants the best for her family. Trouble begins when her high-flying son Charlie finds that his application to Yale University has been deferred, yet his bi-racial best friend Perry – who ‘ticks more boxes’ – has been accepted. The audience watches as Sherri's family ambitions collide with her so-called progressive values. Her privileged life and close friendship with Ginny, Perry's mother, is jeopardised when she is forced to make a choice between her beliefs and what is right for her son.

Actors in Admissions, Alex Kingston and Sarah Hadland, stand on-set, which looks like a kitchen

The Cast

The Admissions cast, comprising just five actors, is a small one, but it is packed with familiar faces. I am sure that many of my readers will recognise the incredible Alex Kingston of Doctor Who fame, as well as the fabulous Sarah Hadland, who I remember best from her hilarious role on That Mitchell and Webb Look. Kingston was on stage from the very start to the very end of the 1 hour 40 minute performance without a break, nailing every high-emotion scene without lacking energy at any point. Her performance should definitely be commended. Another standout stage presence for me was Margot Leicester, who played the character of Roberta. Roberta popped up for three short scenes at the beginning, middle, and end of the play to frame the action, clashing with Sherri on the subject of Hillcrest's school prospectus. Sherri's tokenism was highlighted to hilarious effect through her exchange with Roberta. She lambasted Roberta for not showing enough students of colour in the first draft of the prospectus, only to criticise Roberta's second draft when too many few white students were present! Leicester was utterly believable and nuanced as the befuddled Roberta. She and Kingston gave fantastic performances.

Actors Alex Kingston and Andrew Woodall act out a scene from the play Admissions


My Thoughts

Admissions was nothing short of hilarious. The play pokes fun at white liberals like Sherri who, on the surface, profess an interest in increasing diversity until the positive discrimination that they so champion threatens their personal wants and needs. Harmon's script is very intelligent, cleverly showcasing the absurdity and hypocrisy of Sherri's behaviour. It successfully navigates the tricky bridge between tackling a serious topic and giving the audience plenty to laugh about. A favourite quote of mine, which drew laughs from the whole theatre, came from one of Sherri's charged exchanges with son Charlie: "I don't hate white people - some of my best friends are white people!"

The Guardian's review of Admissions during its West End run found that Charlie, played by US actor Ben Endelman, was somewhat overplayed. I felt that Endelman was very effective at conveying Charlie's disappointment and the tortured emotions of a seventeen year old boy receiving a university deferral, although at some points I did struggle to hear his dialogue. Perhaps Endelman's delivery of his lines might be improved, but his portrayal of Charlie's emotional state could not be faulted.

In the play, the character of Charlie is initially incredibly angry at the preferential treatment that he believes has been given to Perry and other minority groups in university applications. However, by the end of the play, Charlie had changed his viewpoint, acknowledging his white privilege. He even took the extreme step of withdrawing all of his college applications, choosing to attend community college instead so that a minority student could take his place at a prestigious school. In a less favourable review of Admissions in The Evening Standard, Charlie's turnaround was criticised as being somewhat unbelievable, being described as an "astonishing volte-face". However, I found that while Charlie's change of heart was very marked, it was set up by action in between. After his angry outburst, Charlie witnessed Ginny's distress at the suggestion that her son Perry had only been admitted to Yale because of his race. I felt that this set up Charlie's change of heart adequately. Charlie's character served to demonstrate the two extreme viewpoints in discussions about race and I felt that his role provided an interesting and successful questioning of both stances.

Another aspect of the play that I really liked was the staging. The set was static for the whole show with the scene being the interior of Sherri's kitchen. When the scenes required for the setting to be changed to Sherri's office at Hillcrest, the sofa and kitchen table in the foreground of the set were repurposed for this role, with spotlighting drawing your attention away from the kitchen behind. The fact that so little on the stage changed between scenes kept up the pace of the play but never once caused confusion about where the action was taking place. 

Alex Kingston, Andrew Woodall and Ben Edelman sit in the kitchen set for Admissions

My star rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Admissions tackles the very serious topics of race and discrimination in educational contexts with real humour and skill. It was deliberately provocative and highly effective, delivered by an engaging and convincing cast. The play ends with the fundamental unanswered question: How genuinely serious are white people about righting the societal wrongs that benefit them? Something for us all to ponder.

*My tickets to see Admissions were provided free of charge in exchange for a blog post review.

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