Monday, 3 July 2017

Theatre review: Gloria

I try to write reviews without major spoilers in them but it can be a minefield: Gloria is a play that I could try to talk about without mentioning the twist halfway through, but it’s so crucial to what the play’s about there’d be little point writing about it at all if I didn’t at least allude to it. So I’ll start with the story’s setup in the first paragraph, and after that read at your own risk if you’re planning on seeing the show. We start with a bitter, and not all that funny, office sitcom: Kae Alexander, Colin Morgan and Ellie Kendrick play PAs to various editors in the New York headquarters of a national magazine, with Bayo Gbadamosi as an intern who’s been kept deliberately far from any useful work just in case he develops an interest in working there for real, and gets in the way of the others’ ambitions. But Michael Longhurst’s production sets their realistic cubicles in front of chipboard walls that overtly remind us this is a theatrical setting; and besides the writer is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and anyone who saw An Octoroon will know he likes to play around with form. SPOILER ALERT after the text cut.

So there’s a suspicion a change of style could be on the horizon and one recurring subject in their conversations has been the titular Gloria (Sian Clifford,) whose unpopularity in the office was crystallised when almost nobody turned up to her housewarming party. All seems normal until moments before the interval, when Gloria cracks and takes violent revenge on her co-workers for ignoring her.

In the second act survivors Dean (Morgan) and Kendra (Alexander) meet up again in a Starbucks some months later, supposedly to catch up but in reality to scope out each other’s plans to cash in on the tragedy by writing books about it. And this is what Gloria is really about, not just the commodification of tragedy but the selfish claiming of it, and how the latter seems to help the former: The most blameless victim, intern Miles, is completely forgotten, while the most successful memoir on the subject comes from editor Nan (Clifford,) who was barely aware who Gloria was, spent the incident hiding in her bulletproof glass office, and turned the story of a mass-killing into one about her own pregnancy.

In a way it’s quite bold of Jacobs-Jenkins to try the patience so much in the first act, making this a typically bland and dull office so that the violence comes even more out of the blue. In fact it’s a bit damning of Hampstead Theatre that it’s the perfect venue to pull this off – you can actually buy that they’d stage something as half-hearted as the opening hour, whereas somewhere like the Almeida you’d be anticipating the moment when the penny drops. It doesn’t change the fact that the first hour is a bit too authentically everyday, and after eight-and-a-half hours in an office this felt horribly like more of the same*.

And although the second half has been given one hell of a story boost Longhurst’s production still has a tendency to flag in between explosive moments. For me the best act was the third and final one when Lorin (Bo Poraj,) the only survivor who seems to remember Gloria herself, and the only one not to try and profit from her story, ends up temping at a film studio a few years later where he still can’t escape Nan’s highly fictionalised version of it. Here Lizzie Clachan’s set, which has been getting more and more naturalistic as the evening goes on, provides probably the best moment of black comedy in the form of an absolutely brutal visual gag. The other standout of the evening is Kendrick, who in a cast almost all of whom play multiple roles, gives three completely different and equally good – and in the third case cruelly funny - performances. Gloria is a very mixed experience, a play that’ll be hard to forget in a hurry but which doesn’t come close to sustaining its energy for any significant amount of time.

Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is booking until the 29th of July at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

*it’s worrying that when the twist kicked in I immediately knew who our office’s “Gloria” would be, right?

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