28th June, 2017, matinee
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ – whose Octoroon is selling out the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond – 2014 Pulitzer finalist Gloria is making its UK debut at Hampstead Theatre. It’s a gloriously rich play with an unexpected subject matter. This review is only of most of Act One in order to try to avoid plot spoilers.
On entering Hampstead’s auditorium for the first time, the stage management team were doing final checks on Lizzie Clachan’s meticulous design of makeshift cubicles in a makeshift chipboard office, complete with bulk bought furniture and departmental signs written with electrical tape on the walls. There is a print-out poster saying ‘I believe in the person I want to become’ and Thank You cards in one person’s cubicle; postcards of The Smiths and Beetlejuice in another; and a picture of a dog in another. I can’t help but feel the SM team and the chipboard design was all a ruse that contributed to the feeling that I started off thinking the play was going to be one thing before realising that it’s in fact a whole lot more. I thought, aided by the little I had read about the play, this was going to be an ‘office play’. Whatever that is! And it is – but it’s much more than that as well. There’s a sketchiness to the set that could be read as either a meta-theatrical device (I was reminded a bit of Gatz at first) or as a very well-wrought realistic representation of the design of modern offices.
There is much of office life to see in Gloria: the occasional pettiness, the realisation that however awkward you think you are there are others in the workplace who can match it, the optimistic thought that this job is only a rung on a hopefully bigger career ladder. Or perhaps the depressing one that actually, no, this is your career. One of the many achievements of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play and Michael Longhurst’s production is that it paints hugely recognisable characters with spot-on detail. Ellie Kendrick conveys Ani very compellingly, from conveying her job satisfaction down to small nuances such as her habit of kicking the bin under her desk. Colin Morgan is brilliant as Dean, switching from the guy who turns up late, hungover and bitching to the ambitious guy barely clinging on to his twenties wanting to impress his boss in order to work his way up the food chain. And I think we can all relate to Bayo Gbadamosi’s intern Miles, willing to be the dog’s body and sitting around awkwardly with nothing to do whilst desperately wanting to impress and add to his CV. Bo Poraj is also quietly impressive as the pernickety worker from the office next door, meticulously delivering a speech about feeling condemned to be a fact checker all his life and complaining that even his $60 sound cancelling headphones haven’t drowned out the rabble from this office. Kae Alexander as Kendra stands out, evoking the character’s self-centredness and ambition, and Sian Clifford (the steely sister in Fleabag) is also excellent in her roles. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say the actors mostly double up to play other roles and not only does this show off the standard of the acting skills but also highlights similarities and differences between characters.
I got about half way through the first act and thought: OK, this is brilliantly written and performed but it’s also quite conventional so far in how it nicely rolls along. The writing is skilful and satisfying. Characters’ entrances and exits are well-orchestrated; it has the fascination of a work play; and it perfectly captures different feelings on the ‘ambitious youth vs. pressure to succeed and be happy in a career’ scale. I really can’t underestimate how astutely well observed Gloria is. AND THIS IS JUST HALF OF THE PLAY! Because then ‘Gloria’ happens. I might write another review of the rest of it after the run has finished but I don’t want to spoil what is a huge ‘upset’ in the structure of the play. Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing comes at times with a theatrically sly and wry sense of humour and handles a topic that I’ve not seen dealt with elsewhere in theatre. (There might be some comparisons made with Crimp’s The Treatment but I didn’t see the Almeida production). Clachan’s set is clever, inventive and (again) well-observed. Put all too simply, Gloria does a fantastic job of pointing up that no two people’s experience of the same event is equal and not unprofitable. With Octoroon and now Gloria, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has shot onto the London theatre scene.
Gloria plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 29th July.
|Kae Alexander as Kendra and Ellie Kendrick as Ani in Gloria. Credit: Marc Brenner.|