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I can’t say Gloria out loud without hearing Laura Branigan’s lyrics in my head – in spite of the fact that it is J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor that welcomes us to the play through the intern’s (Bayo Gbadamosi) headphones.
This is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ time. This young African-American playwright has two plays on in London as I write: the other, An Octoroon – set in the antebellum South and nominated for four Off West End Awards – is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre. Gloria, one of the finalists for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, begins as an office comedy. Dean (Colin Morgan), Ani (Ellie Kendrick) and Kendra (Kae Alexander) are assistant editors for a New York magazine in decline. They are not coming to terms with their poor career choice and, like crabs in a basket – or, in this case, a cluster of cubicles – they snap and snipe at each other in deliciously wicked and witty interchanges. When they’re not doing that, they are sending their Harvard intern to buy them vitamin water from the distributor at the end of the hall. Kae Alexander, in particular, steals the show – when her character isn’t at Starbucks, that is.
Success is invisible, hidden behind frosted glass – but failure is right next to them, in the person of Lorin (Bo Poraj), still fact-checking at 39, and Gloria (Sian Clifford), un-promoted, unnoticed and so unloved that only Dean bothers to show up at her housewarming party. Michael Longhurst’s direction is well-paced and smooth, while the actors, especially Colin Morgan, make Lizzie Clachan’s office set feel like they’ve been sitting there for years. Just when you start to wonder what really is at stake here…
[SPOILER ALERT] The first act ends with a shocking tragedy of such magnitude that I spent the interval wondering how they were going to keep our attention for a whole other hour.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Michael Longhurst were ready. The second act, if anything, is better than the first. From a comedy of manners with little more than egos and frustrated ambitions at stake, the play moves up a gear. Quite simply, there are those who benefit from horrible tragedies and those who pay. All the actors double in new – and sometimes diametrically opposite – roles from the ones they played in the first act. And while this has been happening since Shakespeare, what makes the doubling (or, in Bayo Gbadamosi’s case, tripling) special here is that there is a link, for example, between Sian Clifford’s Gloria in the first act and her turn as the formerly invisible boss, Nan, in the second. If there had been no Gloria, there would have been no opportunity for Nan’s mix of narcissism and calculated spirituality to make her famous. Bo Poraj’s Lorin is the one character that never morphs. That’s not the only thing he fails to do: Lorin never engages in the kind of skulduggery necessary to succeed, in the media and in other industries too.
Gloria does what the best plays do: while you’re in the theatre, it captivates and entertains; then it works its way under your skin so that you wake up the next day, and the day after, thinking about what you saw and what you still feel.
Gloria continues at the Hampstead Theatre until July 29. Tickets are available from £10.