BWW Review: GLORIA, Hampstead Theatre
American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins asserts that the nightmarish workplace depicted in Gloria bears little resemblance to his time at The New Yorker, but that tension between truth and imagination adds a nicely meta layer to this spiky portrait of the ways in which we appropriate, fictionalise and commercially repackage reality.
Three twentysomething editorial assistants are stuck in career limbo, as their Manhattan-based magazine cuts costs in the face of digital-age industry oblivion. The publication's hierarchical structure is failing them, with lingering Baby Boomer bosses securing fat salaries and no room for millennials to advance; paying your dues no longer pays off. Even the eager intern questions whether he'd want to board this sinking ship.
Jacobs-Jenkins is merciless in his depiction of the horrors of the open-plan office, where people are forced into close quarters while keeping an artificial distance from their workmates; a recurring trope is the use of noise-cancelling headphones (in a similar environment, I recall a strict instruction to only email, not speak to, colleagues sitting feet away from me). But this erosion of humanity and community has devastating consequences.
The play's smart structure gives us a before and after, with double-casting lending embodiment to his theories about how we process tragedy and form stories that foreground ourselves, and how terrible events can all too quickly shift into narrative, statistics, recurring patterns and distant memory.
We see that in microcosm as news filters through the office about a pop star OD-ing: the assistants recall her songs' place in their own lives, and one resents a fellow profile writer reframing the singer's tale to suit her personal "lesbian agenda".
There's certainly a critique of 21st-century solipsism, as well as evidence of a generational tension all too apparent in our recent election, but Jacobs-Jenkins is interested, too, in who owns a story and the vampiric tendencies of capitalism to encourage its swift commodification, particularly in the case of traumatic events. Competitive workplace culture is also taken to a toxic extreme, with the worth of human life secondary to the opportunities for professional advancement.
Jacobs-Jenkins does, however, hit some overly familiar notes in the wistful remembrance of media's golden age - though that's slightly undercut by the acknowledgement that it featured substance abuse and wasteful spending - and broader digs at those vapid, tech-obsessed kids with their Snapchat and social media. Soulless LA execs, too, are exceedingly soft targets.
Colin Morgan is excellent as faded charmer Dean, whose networking has slumped into low-level alcoholism ("schmoozer to boozer") as his 30th birthday looms. His only hope of escape from an increasingly soul-destroying job - at one point he's reduced to fetching a bag of his boss's vomit - is a half-baked memoir proposal.
Ellie Kendrick brilliantly illustrates the ways in which studious niceness can function as both armour and weapon, while Kae Alexander is convincing if one-note as image-obsessed, furiously venting Kendra - though that's partly a feature of Jacobs-Jenkins' relentless first act.
Yet the assistants' frustrations don't translate into kindness towards their intern. Instead, they - in turn - ignore, patronise, resent or punish him with menial tasks like refilling printer paper or trips to the vending machine, unfeeling behaviour inevitably passed down.
As veteran fact-checker Lorin, Bo Poraj unravels in memorable fashion, and there's strong support too from Bayo Gbadamosi and Sian Clifford in a cast full of adept shape-shifters. All have a strong handle on the play's tone, which blends flinty satire with elegiac reflection.
Michael Longhurst's production is slightly stymied by the play's uneven pacing - from harried to meandering - but is otherwise sharply compelling. He has a strong assist from Lizzie Clachan's flexible and articulate set, and thoughtful lighting from Oliver Fenwick, who illustrates how the rest of the world can fall away as we spin a self-centred tale. A thought-provoking modern horror story.
Gloria at Hampstead Theatre until 22 July. Book tickets here
Photo credit: Marc Brenner