Alex Kingston (Sherri)Johan Persson

There are plays which speak to the era they’re performed in, and then there’s Admissions, which seems to speak to this very minute. It’s hard to believe that playwright Joshua Harmon, whose scripts for Bad Jews (2012) and Skintight (2018) have garnered him a cult Anglo-American following, started writing Admissions eight years ago. The problems it grapples with, from the ethics of university admissions to the tension between professional and private values and how you separate a person from their privilege (to name but a few) could have been plucked from today’s headlines. I can’t think of a more relevant play to bring to the Cambridge Arts Theatre this summer.

There’s a daring, refreshing beauty to how Harmon’s characters are so explicit about their thoughts

‘Grapples’ is the word: Admissions follows a liberal New England family, the Masons, whose sense of social justice becomes complicated by their personal aspirations and loyalty to each other. Charlie Mason (Ben Edelman), a bright and intense seventeen-year-old whose future is suddenly jeopardised, struggles to work out what ‘fairness’ should cost. His mother Sherri (Alex Kingston), the Head of Admissions at an elite private school, sees her commitment to diversity under scrutiny from those closest to her, including her best friend Ginnie (Sarah Hadland). As their situation escalates, the Masons struggle to make their principles keep up, debating and negotiating with each other as they scrabble for the right thing to do. We get a glimpse of this frustration early in the play, when Charlie delivers a raging, giddy diatribe on accessibility.

“People often ask me how I get through it,” Ben Edelman notes of this speech, which pushes the limits of emotion and lung-power. “This is Charlie taking out every inch of his fury, insanity, bitterness, sarcasm, violence... I’m squeezing it all out of myself.” He describes the moment as an “eruption, spinning out of control.”

This early episode foregrounds what Ben calls “the dark side of having a dream,” which is common to “anyone who puts themselves on the line for a dream.” Far from being alienating, Charlie expresses a very human conflict, which lets us know straight away that the problems in Admissions are as complex as the people who contend with them. There are no easy answers.

Ben is proud of this and points out that Admissions “enlarges and complicates the conversation, without fully endorsing one solution.” For him, this kind of “contradiction and nuance” not only makes the play “great art” but represents exactly how our society works out its values.

Andrew Woodall (Bill) and Ben Edelman (Charlie)Johan Persson

“In real life, solutions are a manifestation of emergent, overlapping discussions,” he explains. Even as an individual, “you’re constantly saying, ‘I hate that I think this,’ or ‘I can’t believe you said that’, or ‘I’m so glad I got that off my chest’. And sometimes you’re talking and talking until you finally feel like what you say is what you mean.”

This last observation could be Admissions’ subtitle. The process Ben describes plays out in real time onstage, as characters tell each other and themselves what they believe, and then realise that it doesn’t work, and rethink. As this goes on, there’s a daring, refreshing beauty to how Harmon’s characters are so explicit about their thoughts. “People are more honest in private”, Ben notes, adding that Harmon “wants to hold a mirror to his audience”, reflecting how they think in private too.

The proof that this works is in how audiences, in both New York and London, react to the play. “It’s always a charged response,” says Ben, “People find it divisive, profound, funny, humiliating. It’s skewering something.” He recalls conversations with admissions officers “who say it’s changed how they think about their jobs; mothers who come and tell me what they’d do if it were their son.” It seems that Admissions is only the first half of the conversation, and the second happens when you leave the theatre.


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You can already sense Admissions’ impact while it’s unfolding onstage, though: the audience in Trafalgar Studios applauds when a character says what we’re thinking, inhales sharply when it’s too close to the bone. When Charlie’s dad, Bill (Andrew Woodall), calls his son a bigot, the man next to me cries, “Yup!” Ben can’t wait to see how Cambridge responds when the show runs at the Arts Theatre next week; as a play whose material only seems to get more relevant, especially to university students, it’s guaranteed to make a big impression, and give us a lot to talk about.

Admissions runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from 3 June until 8 June. Visit www.admissionsplay.com

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