The final production in the current season at Hampstead Theatre is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria – overlapping with another of his plays An Octoroon, which recently closed at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It is a tale full of twists and turns surrounding the lives of people who work in a New York magazine office, exploring some people’s daily struggle to survive in a demoralising environment.
It’s a typical morning. Miles the intern arrived before anyone else in the office, and both Dean and Kendra are horrifically late – the former with a hangover, the latter using the excuse of her boss working from home to come in via the shops. Another colleague (a veteran of the magazine, Gloria) held a housewarming party the previous night, but only Dean and a couple of others turned up – you can imagine the awkwardness and humiliation of that. Little do they all know how big an effect their decision about the party will affect the rest of their lives…
Most of us can relate to how the 9-5 office life can get you down; the predictability of a routine is soul-destroying enough at times, but being forced into stressful working conditions will inevitably have some lasting effect. Despite admitting to very limited experience in this kind of environment, Jacobs-Jenkins captures it perfectly in his humour, the skill of remaining employed whilst doing little or no work, and the very real emotions that can be triggered. Nearly all of what happens in the first act is hugely relatable to me.
If you buy a programme, your curiosity will immediately be piqued by some of the pages being sealed to avoid spoilers. That does make things slightly more problematic if you’re reviewing (and pride yourself on not giving plots away)… So if you’re intending on seeing the play, maybe come back & read the rest later? Just in case.
What the second act deals with most is the concept of experience; is one person’s experience more valid than another’s? Is there value in sharing one select point of view with the whole world, potentially extending or reawakening memories in the wake of a traumatic episode? Jacobs-Jenkins takes great pains to study this in several different ways: someone who was there, someone who should have been there, someone there but not there, and someone who got away. It contrasts the two halves of the play, becoming more reflective following the comedy and drama of the first.
By the end it’s almost as if it’s come full circle, with some elements of Lizzie Clachan’s design calling back to the incident that hangs over the characters’ lives (noticeably the company logo on the glass outside the office), and events seeming to play out in a similar way. It certainly keeps you on the edge of your seat as you recognise the patterns emerging, almost living through Lorin’s anxieties with him as he returns to an office environment for the first time in two years.
All bar one of the cast double, or even treble, up during the course of the play (a concept that for some reason seemed to confuse some of the audience, despite the change in costume & characteristics). It’s an interesting idea, as you probably expect a certain pair of characters to be there throughout, but actually their story arcs conclude quite well before the final scene – and the whole play ends by focusing on possibly the most human character of them all.
Colin Morgan is incredibly funny as first Dean, and later Devin – but is also equal parts moving and a bit scary in the middle of the story, as he looks back on his experience and tries to take control of it. We see Sian Clifford very little as Gloria, which is quite fitting as she remains something of an enigma to both the audience and her colleagues, but whilst onstage Clifford portrays Gloria’s breakdown in a sensitive manner. Bo Poraj comes into his own in the latter stages of the play, as Lorin starts temping in a California office and finds it hard to cope as old wounds are opened.
My verdict? A play that’s full of surprises, and definitely speaks to this day and age – a triumph of composition and performance.
Gloria runs at Hampstead Theatre until 29 July 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.