Hampstead isn't just a place but a state of mind: it's an area that has become associated with a particularly wealthy metropolitan literary and political elite, and the theatre that has been an integral part of its cultural identity since it was first founded nearly 60 years ago has just had a major blow delivered with a big cut to its Arts Council funding.
According to Guardian critic Lyn Gardner, the theatre "has a poor record in terms of producing work by women, disabled artists and black and Asian artists", and she states the 14% cut in their funding "is not a punishment but rather a reflection of the fact that in the 21st century who you choose to work with, and how you work with them, is part and parcel of artistic policy. Arts organisations can’t continue to work on outdated models and expect to secure funding."
Yet right now it is premiering one of the best and boldest new plays of the year so far in offering the British premiere for 32-year-old African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Gloria: a riveting, ruthless account of office politics in an American weekly magazine of junior workers on the mostly forgotten culture desk, shoved on a corridor in-between the fact checking and copy editing departments.
Jacobs-Jenkins, who recently also had the hugely acclaimed British premiere of his play An Octoroon at Richmond's Orange Tree, has written a dark and disturbing, smart and sensational play about people's bad behaviour in an ambitious office environment; and he also delivers an astonishing surprise that leaves the audience reeling.
It's impossible to write about without spoiling it for future audiences, but suffice it to say that the action leads to it and pivots from it. I've seldom been so gobsmacked in my theatregoing life (even the programme has a sealed section that it invites you to only open during the interval to prevent a spoiler).
It's not just the surprise, though, that makes this play thrilling; it is the brittle tension sustained by director Michael Longhurt and his superb ensemble cast that includes the remarkable Colin Morgan as a long-term personal assistant at the magazine with writerly ambitions of his own, Bayo Gbadamosi as a new intern there, and Kae Alexander, Ellie Kendrick, Bo Poraj and Sian Clifford as other staffers.
A remarkable play and production.
Gloria tickets are on sale now.