From the Obie Award winning playwright of An Octaroon, this month Branden Jacobs Jenkins’ Gloria arrives at the stage of the Hampstead Theatre. The play became a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Drama in 2016, and was first produced Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in June 2015. Director Michael Longhurst – whose past credits include Amadeus at the National Theatre and Constellations at the Royal Court – brings the comic drama to life with a distinctive cast and thoughtful design by Lizzie Clachan.
Gloria focuses on the working lives of a team of editorial assistants at the offices of a well-known magazine in modern-day Manhattan. The hyper-ambitious group of aspiring writers begin their day, fatigued by the monotony of their desk jobs. Gloria, the ‘office freak’, had held a party the night before, and Dean stumbles in hungover. Tensions run high as the group compete for the chance to supplement an important article, and in an explosion of workplace toxicity, Gloria decides to go postal – a decision that sparks trauma, further dispute, and a contest for a potential book deal.
Announced by the word ‘Edit’ scribbled in black on a bare OSB2 board backdrop, the Editing suite is nestled between the Copy, Fact Checking, and Photo departments. Four desks encased by office cubicles overflow with stationary, pot plants and empty Starbucks cups, providing the first of three locations within the narrative. The overall effect has a makeshift quality, although Clachan’s designs do provide well-constructed surprises: the first in the form of a working vending machine stocked with purple vitamin water.
Interestingly, Jacobs-Jenkins’ cast of six are required to multi-role – some up to three times. Characters expire and new ones appear in their place, making the world of the play seem much larger than expected. The only stable character among them is Lorin (played by Bo Poraj), the Head Fact Checker against an army of self-important twenty-somethings that use ‘like’ as a discourse marker.
The ensemble deliver a strong performance throughout, beginning as a personified moan and groan that only exaggerate their office politics. Kae Alexander is entertaining as Kendra, the resident “ambition junkie”, and Bayo Gbadamosi is charming as the over-excitable and innocent intern, Miles. Making his debut at the Hampstead Theatre, Colin Morgan doesn’t disappoint as wannabe-author Dean with a talent for social climbing, and Sian Clifford is memorable as Gloria, the intense no-body who tipped the story into an unexpected rabbit hole. Ellie Kendrick is one of the few to reappear in three instances of theatrical doubling, and impresses with each return to the stage. Changes in character demonstrate the superb range of the actors, and all are markedly different upon reincarnation.
The opening act concludes with a frighteningly realistic massacre at the mercy of Gloria’s pistol, and it is a shame that this creativity is not reflected in the beginning of the second. The appearance of an authentic Starbucks brings with it a considerable decline in energy, and the cast remain static in their fourth wall window seats for an extraordinarily long time. The stage becomes progressively dull as time passes, the lights dimming as it does so. This is an unwise device as it only forces the action into a deeper state of lethargy, and it is fortunate that the final scene manages to rectify this with a welcome change of pace.
Gloria examines the ownership of lived experience, and does well to ghost the life of its narrative with trauma. Also profoundly comic, Jacobs-Jenkins communicates an unforgettable moral within his story: be careful what you wish for.
Gloria is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until July 22.
Photo: Marc Brenner