Hampstead Theatre, London – until 22 July 2017
“She’s like an emotional terrorist.”
Truth be told I hadn’t intended to see Gloria, my own little act of protest at the Hampstead’s continuing gender imbalance – six shows straight on their main stage both written and directed by men. But the delights of An Octoroon introduced me to the writing of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and he definitely feels like a playwright with a lot to say so I sucked it up and went to Swiss Cottage for a cheeky preview, ironically the location for the Women Centre Stage festival late last year.
Gloria sets out as a dark office comedy, shady and sharp as it navigates the ruthless ambition of a pool of young(ish) editorial assistants in the Manhattan offices of a national magazine. It’s a scathing satire of the journalism industry and the way it has evolved, or not as the case may be – time was that a foot on the bottom of the ladder meant you could reasonably expect to get to the top but times change, cubicle warfare has intensified, and in this uncertain modern world, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
Just exactly what that is is a surprise that unfolds magnificently in Michael Longhurst’s production. The barbed conversation between this group as they scope out the changing landscape is highly enjoyable – the sucking up to the boss, the secretive hopes for a book deal, the decline in journalistic standards, the rise of the internet (shudder!), particularly as Jacobs-Jenkins allows it to get as vicious as office chat can get, as pettiness curdles into outright savagery.
And once the shift comes, it is impossible to view Gloria without considering recent events that have rocked the UK. In a world where showing concern online is smacked down as virtue-signalling, where politicians must show the exact right amount of grief, where journalists trample on decency for the race for the scoop, we’re asked who has the right to tell whose story, can anyone legitimately ‘gain’ from certain events or only those most directly affected.
It’s thought-provoking stuff, especially since it is such a sea-change from earlier scenes, and even though the play finishes on the same darkly comic note, its concerns still niggle away at the conscience. Longhurst balances these well though I must confess to not being much of a fan of Lizzie Clachan’s design for once, the logic behind the soundstage escaping me, the viewlines of the (ugly) coffee shop penalising anyone sitting on the far left.
Performance levels are excellent though – Colin Morgan and Kae Alexander stand out as the most ruthless of the assistants, Bo Poraj traces the moving emotional journey of a quiet soul, and Sian Clifford is hauntingly effective, no matter which end of the rat race she is attacking from. Gloria is a brutally honest look at the post-boomer workplace and how certainties taken as a given by so many have been slowly eroded away, the impact thereof rarely taken seriously enough (until consequences such as Gloria force the issue that is).