Review: Gloria (Hampstead Theatre)

Colin Morgan stars in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ new play about a New York magazine

Everybody has a story to sell in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' workplace drama, and it adds up to a damning indictment of late-capitalism and its commodified culture.

Gloria starts on the arts desk of a New York magazine. It is, like most mainstream media outlets, struggling to survive in an industry collapsing in on itself like a dying star. "Why does it feel like we’re on the f*cking Titanic?" wails Kendra, one of three editorial assistants who spend their days gassing and b*tching, while churning out clickbait about this next big thing or that dead celeb. Their job is to convert art into content – day after day after day.

Dean (Colin Morgan) is fast approaching 30, bright, ambitious, and staring down the barrel of a stillborn career. He arrives late, sweat-soaked and hungover (again), and heeds his boss’s every beck and call, even ferrying a bagful of vomit to the bin at one point. The book proposal on his desk – a memoir about life at the mag – is his best hope of escape. Kendra (Kae Alexander) is a workshy Asian-American rich kid with a coffee habit and a rivalrous attitude, and Ani (Ellie Kendrick) is a nice culture-loving girl in a cutthroat world.

Jacobs-Jenkins nails the toxic atmosphere of contemporary journalism to a T: a mix of cynicism, superiority and ambition but, mostly, terror. All three have enough self-awareness to read the tea leaves, but too little gumption to get out. The hopelessness of it all abundantly evident – in a strict hierarchy that runs from cushty boomer editors with their bygone salaries to Bayo Gbadamosi’s baffled intern, Miles. It’s in the ignored fact checker, Lorin (Bo Poraj), constantly pleading for quiet, and in the office oddball, Gloria (Sian Clifford), with a stern stare, few friends and over-emotional tendencies.

Just when you settle into a workplace drama, however, Jacobs-Jenkins blows it apart. The news room becomes a news story in its own right, and the rest of the play follows these ambitious hacks as they squabble over the spoils.

This is as clear-sighted a portrait of late-capitalism as you’ll find. Not only does Jacobs-Jenkins capture its constant thrum of anxiety, he sees the patterns that build up within it: the small cycles of petty violence, the dog-eat-dog rivalries and the pressure that makes people pop. Gloria refuses to pathologise such incidents, but rather sees them as symptoms of a crocked and callous system.

This is, ultimately, a machine running on empty; a body that has begun to consume itself. All these storytellers produce nothing of substance, nothing of material value. Strapped for cash, they wring their life stories for every last drop of value, until the layers of fiction double and triple up: stories of stories, books within books, writers writing about writers. It all starts to look like a con trick, no different to Enron stock or bundled sub-primes. And that’s before you sell the movie rights. As in An Octoroon, currently running at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, stories mutate and lose shape – only instead of context, here commerce is to blame. Fake news sells better than fact – or fiction.

It’s that sharpness of social critique that sustains Gloria‘s tension, because Jacobs-Jenkins’ structure sometimes slackens off. His first act feels like it’s treading water, almost playing for time with assorted workplace business, and, for all the charge of its bolt from the blue, Gloria comes to rely on coincidence and contrivance. In the end it spins once to often and, rather than taking off, Michael Longhurst’s production rather loses velocity.

Gloria runs at the Hampstead Theatre until 22 July.