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Review: Colin Morgan and Ellie Kendrick in Gloria, Hampstead Theatre (spoiler free and spoiler versions)

Colin Morgan in Gloria at Hampstead Theatre  photo by Marc Brenner (1)
Colin Morgan in Gloria at Hampstead Theatre photo by Marc Brenner

Spoiler free:

I work in an office and I work in publishing so there is definitely stuff to relate to in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play which is set at the offices of a New York magazine. Naturally, there are some cultural differences, we don't tend to have cubicle workspaces here in the UK and perhaps favour a passive-aggressive tone rather than direct confrontation, but the tensions, annoyances and rivalries are pretty much the same.

What we get in Gloria is a portrait of human nature and relationships in a world of modern media, as told through the prism of office life, workplace tedium and ambition; and that portrait shows its true colours after a particular incident in the office.

Colin Morgan, Ellie Kendrick and Kae Alexander play editorial assistants Dean, Ani and Kendra at the magazine. They are young and ambitious, anxious to keep their careers moving. The presence of intern Miles (Bayo Gbadamosi) seems to bring out the best and worst of their ambitions, a symbol of just how far their careers have or haven't got. They measure their ambition in status: getting your own office and having an assistant and against what everyone else has or hasn't done - and how long they have or haven't done it.

The first half centre's on the morning after co-worker Gloria's (Sian Clifford) flat-warming party and the growing battle to write up the obituary profile of a pop star who has committed suicide. The second half is the fall out after the particular incident - more of which in the spoiler version below, but this is play probably best enjoyed knowing little of the actual plot.

Kae Alexander and Ellie Kendrick in Gloria at Hampstead Theatre  photo by Marc Brenner (1)
Kae Alexander and Ellie Kendrick in Gloria at Hampstead Theatre photo by Marc Brenner

As you enter the auditorium the set is still being worked on by the stage crew and you hear the actors being called. It is an interesting device to use: there are no illusions here, this is a piece of theatre. Given what happens in the play and the way in which Branden Jacob-Jenkins has a knack of turning the mirror on the audience, in hindsight, it offers little comfort.

He is a writer with keen observation and in Gloria, he mixes the profound and prosaic, the ridiculous and the revelatory, often in the same character. You find yourself irritated, angry and agreeing with someone in just one speech. None of the central characters are wholly nice, or wholly kind. They have their moments of fun and camaraderie but that doesn't stop them making acerbic jibes, they certainly don't keep their opinions and judgements to themselves.

Colin Morgan's Dean might be the only person who goes to Gloria's party, lying about having a good time to save her feelings, but that doesn't stop him setting up Kendra and putting her in an embarrassing and potentially career-damaging situation with her boss.

Gloria is full of fast wit and truths, the brashness of certain characters may grate a little in the first half but it is all to a point for the second half. It wasn't quite up there with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon (still on at the Orange Tree) but it certainly fixed him in my favourite contemporary writers list. Gloria is two and a half hours including an interval and I'm giving it four stars. It is at Hampstead Theatre until July 29 (extra week added).

Related: Production photos

The following contains spoilers, you have been warned

About two thirds through the first half I was wondering where all this was going. Whether you see it coming or not, it is still shocking and it is testament to the script, Colin Morgan and Sian Clifford's performance that there is moment when you feel a genuine sense of jeopardy for Dean. Gloria, dubbed 'weird' by her co-workers is generally snubbed and the subject of mean gossip. Although we arrive just before her tipping point, the way the other characters act around her and talk about gives a flavour of how she has been treated over the years.

While the editorial assistants are bickering and sniping, she is reeling from the fact that most of her colleagues didn't bother to turn up to her party - the party for the flat she'd finally been able to afford to buy. It is the straw that breaks the camel's back and a warning that you never know how far people will be pushed. Without pause she shoots most of her co-workers, the gun is pointed at Dean and given what you've just witnessed you are waiting for the shot. But she spares him because of his small act of kindness before turning the gun on herself.

Then it's the interval and now you are wondering again where the play is going when most of the characters are lying in a bloody mess by their desks. What the second half does is follow the aftermath of the shooting for those that survived. Dean is affected psychologically by what he saw but he, like Kendra (who was out buying coffee at the time) and Nancy the unseen boss in the neighbouring office (also played Sian Clifford) can't resist trying to capitalise on the experience in some shape or form.

The rabid ambition and desire for the limelight pushes aside any sensitivities or remorse about the part they played, however small, in Gloria's killing spree and instead they milk the tragedy in order to get their own publishing deals.

Most of the actors whether killed off or not return in some shape or form playing survivors and new characters from the world of publishing and film production. Bayo Gbadamosi gets a turn as a barista in a Starbucks and, then with a degree of irony, an assistant turned boss at a film production company. Colin Morgan also plays a brilliantly moody IT support guy complete with Guardian's of the Galaxy T-shirt and eye-rolls worthy of a sulky teenager.

It is in the second half that the play opens up further. The bosses of the NY magazine reminisce about what the world of work used to be like but don't see the irony of the part they have ultimately played in changing it. The way the media bosses pick over the various memoirs for what is good, sellable material is sad indictment of how tragedy becomes festishised for monetary gain at the expense of morality. Those that buy to read or pay to watch are complicit and to a degree we the theatre audience are complicit too.

Gloria is a play that exposes a grubbier, self-centred side of human nature, one that seems on the surface relatively innocent but is actually quite destructive.