Something happens just before the interval in US playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria that shocks, viscerally.
Out of the blue and on a sixpence, the play transforms from a farcical office satire – and a hilarious one, too – into an unsettling examination of contemporary employment culture, of unseen societal hierarchies, and of the distasteful rat race of grief that inevitably accompanies tragedy.
The first half plays out like a darker, meaner episode of The Office. A trio of assistants and an intern bicker their way through the morning in the edit suite of a New York magazine publisher, fuelled by professional frustration, jealousy and coffee.
Then, the something happens, and the two-act second half – for which Lizzie Clachan’s astutely textured design shifts from a Starbucks to the lobby of a new-age California media firm – pours over the richly emblematic reverberations.
Jacobs-Jenkins eschews the hyperbolic melodrama and formal experimentation of An Octoroon – still running and still great at the Orange Tree in Richmond – in favour of a snappy, naturalistic but equally daring approach.
Michael Longhurst directs a tightly wound production, his six-strong, multi-roling cast – all exceptional, particularly Colin Morgan as a nerve-addled wannabe writer and terse IT grunt, and Ellie Kendrick as a variety of bubbly colleagues – inflecting Jacobs-Jenkins’ comedy-drama with a disconcerting tension.
Gloria is just glorious, ultimately. It’s the second invigorating UK debut in as many months from an insightful, intelligent, impish and hugely welcome transatlantic voice.