fri 14/06/2024

Gloria, Hampstead Theatre review – pretty glorious | reviews, news & interviews

Gloria, Hampstead Theatre review – pretty glorious

Gloria, Hampstead Theatre review – pretty glorious

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's Off Broadway hit makes a vibrant crossing to London starring Colin Morgan

In excelsis deo? Colin Morgan as Dean in 'Gloria'Marc Brenner

As with life, so it is in art: in the same way that one can't predict the curve balls that get thrown our way, the American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins defies categorisation. On the basis of barely a handful of plays, two of which happen now to be running concurrently in London, this 32-year-old Pulitzer prize finalist seems to embark upon a fresh path with each new venture.

Starting with its entirely unanticipated structure, Gloria at Hampstead Theatre confounds expectation to a heady and exhilarating degree, if one can apply those adjectives to so ferocious a vision of American life. Let's just say that Bach's music has rarely been pressed into as biting a contemporary landscape. 

Asserting itself at the outset as a satire of realpolitik in the hardscrabble world of journalism, the play traverses locations and two years to take a razor-sharp view of a violence-prone, morally rudderless landscape where even the most grievous of human actions can essentially be commodified. You may leave Michael Longhurst's dazzling production not entirely sure of what you've just seen, partly because the tonal swerves and shifts of the writing continue throughout. But one gets the sense between this and his wonderful, more brazenly radical An Octoroon (in its last weeks at the Orange Tree in Richmond) that Jacobs-Jenkins wouldn't have it any other way.

No one experiences existence in a neat straight line, and Jacobs-Jenkins's achievement is to alert playgoers to every curve along the way, whether that roadmap is wounding, funny or - as is the case with catalytic moments here - off-the-charts unspeakable. Kae Alexander and Ellie Kendrick in 'Gloria'The first of designer Lizzie Clachan's three sharply realised settings is the outer office of an unnamed New York magazine presided over by a mystique-laden editor, Nan, who makes her presence felt from behind closed doors, leaving her youthful assistants to grab what shards of the spotlight they can. Chief among them is the amply-coiffed Dean (Colin Morgan, nailing the American-on-the-make mode), who alone among these underlings actually bothered to attend the housewarming party the previous night thrown by a hapless colleague called Gloria, whom her co-workers regard as little more than an "emotional terrorist". Dean's colleagues include the talkative if none-too-industrious Kendra (Kae Alexander), who would appear to live her life for and at Starbucks; Ani (Ellie Kendrick, pictured above with Kae Alexander), hair piled as high as her ambition; and a sweet-seeming intern, Miles (Bayo Gbadamosi), whose functionary routine fulfilling various menial tasks suddenly brightens when he is given quality time with the all-important if unseen (well, up until that point) Nan.

Sian Clifford in 'Gloria'Jacobs-Jenkins ends his first act with a dramatic coup de foudre that must remain a surprise, though it's worth pointing out upon my second viewing of this play (I saw its Off Broadway debut in 2015) just how carefully the apparent randomness of the event is in fact embedded in the text. Note the actual language of the badinage that these young hopefuls engage in, alongside the discussion of the legacy of "some singer named Sarah Tweed", and you'll clock a widening landscape of psychic dysfunction that ends up hitting all the characters where they live. 

The post-interval action shifts settings and, eventually, coasts to extend still further the author's critique of a spiritually insensate landscape in which nothing is so terrible that it can't become an object for commercial barter. As various book deals and films swirl around the Event That Cannot Be Named, one is aware of a pattern whereby the horrors experienced one day merely feed the commercial maw required by another. Is there nothing, Jacobs-Jenkins is asking, that can't be reduced to an anecdote? Gloria on that front poses much the same question – "how do we keep the experience?" – that courses through John Guare's comparably wide-ranging Six Degrees of Separation: a kissing cousin of sorts to this play. 

All but one of Longhurst's exemplary cast of six play multiple roles, the exception being Bo Poraj, who memorably brings to the eternal fact-checker, Lorin, a bemused sense of survival against the odds. And if Jacobs-Jenkins tends to indulge verbal jags that can seem too often like set pieces, this company finds a relish to their shape-shifting assignments that lends this production greater heft than its New York antecedent. While Alexander's diction could be sharper, there's no disputing her feral command of the ghastly Kendra of act one, a woman far happier opining about work than doing much of it.

Sian Clifford (pictured above) is simply astonishing in her segue between two roles, and Morgan navigates his dual assignments with not just an ace American accent but an acute sense of a society in which status at every second counts – on which topic, and many others, Gloria is pretty glorious. 

No one experiences existence in a straight line, and this playwright's achievement is to alert playgoers to every curve along the way


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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