Gloria, Hampstead Theatre, London, review: Michael Longhurst's production communicates with scathing relish the ferociously competitive bitching

This gritty workplace drama about three ambitious editorial assistants in a national magazine office in Manhattan is another hit for American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Paul Taylor
Monday 26 June 2017 11:00
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Kae Alexander as Kendra and Colin Morgan as Dean in 'Gloria' at Hampstead Theatre

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play starts off as a workplace satire set in one of the circles of hell that Dante forgot to stick into the inferno.

We're thrown into the company of three frustrated, ruthlessly ambitious editorial assistants in the Manhattan offices of a national magazine. Cubicle warfare amongst these stymied twenty-somethings has reached new levels of toxicity as a beleaguered industry thwarts their desire for career advancement and they are left to fume with a sense of millennial entitlement and resentment at the baby boomers who were too busy swilling down their martini lunches to anticipate the internet and now don't have the grace to die.

Michael Longhurst’s excellently acted production communicates with scathing relish the ferociously competitive bitching of this trio as they jostle for position and do each other down. “Don't you hold the title for the Longest Living Assistant on Edit Row?”: Kendra (Kae Alexander), a workshy Asian-American rich kid, enjoys taunting Dean (Colin Morgan), who is pushing 30 and, after five years in the job, still required to do his boss's every bidding, even conveying a bag a puke to the bins at one point.

Her scorn for this bright, habitually hung-over-from-networking colleague intensifies when it's discovered that he has drafted a book proposal: Zine Dreams, a would-be memoir about life at the mag that is his forlorn exit plan. When Kendra boasts about having made a name for herself in an industry still dominated by privileged straight white men, Dean retorts that to be a rich Asian girl from Pasadena with a degree from Harvard is essentially to be a privileged straight white man.

Jacobs-Jenkins has a sharp eye for the hierarchy that here runs from the boss who can't remember the names of the interns to Bayo Gbadamosi’s bemused intern Miles, who's been put off an industry where everyone seems so miserable. The magazine “sucks your soul out of you”, as is attested by the distraught fact-checker Lorin (Bo Poraj) who goes through a mini-breakdown and the titular Gloria (Sian Clifford) who for 15 years has poured her whole life into it and is now regarded as the office freak.

Still running at the Orange Tree in Richmond is the European premiere of another work by this award-winning 32-year-old American playwright. Initially, I could find little in common between Gloria and An Octoroon, Jacobs-Jenkins's meta-theatrical riff on a 19th century melodrama by Boucicault that offers a trenchant deconstruction of the stage representation of race.

But then the first act of Gloria ends in a spree of bloody violence and what we thought was going to be a straightforward workplace drama shape-shifts into further genres through the remaining two scenes, set respectively in a Starbucks eight months later and in the offices of a television company in Los Angeles some years afterwards. The thematic links become clearer. Who has the authority to tell whose story? That’s a question that is posed in both pieces – here through the self-serving way the survivors process and package their trauma, the more distant the act of witness and the more faked the emotion the better.

Some of the actors reappear with aplomb in different but ironically matched roles and Longhurst's production has a buoyancy that serves the play's mordant verve well. Recommended.

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