Sexual Tension as thick as Magnolia Perfume [by James Wenley]
It’s a classic formula, and one we are all familiar with: a miss-matched couple, often from vastly different backgrounds or social spheres meet, bicker, bicker some more, swear they hate each other, then admit their enduring love and affection. Jane Austen for one knew that hate was the secret to a good love story. Written badly, the formula ends in movies like The Ugly Truth (damn you Katherine Heigl!). Written well, you get a simply glorious play called Glorious.
In crafting glorious, playwright Richard Huber took his cue from one manifestation of the formula – screwball comedies of the 30s American depression era (famously described as “a sex comedy without the sex”), often starring names like Katharine Hepburn and tackling class issues in a comedic way. In a knowing nod, lead character Gloria in the play often compares her situation to scenes from Hepburn films. The actress, Anya Tate-Manning (a rising Wellington starlet), took early inspiration from the actress, channeling Hepburn’s distinct manner of speech.
Gloria is of the wealthy American socialite class, used to getting what she wants, and engaged to be married. She sets her sights however on Jimmy, employed as a waiter at her Father’s party, and within minutes of striking up the conversation announces they will be married. And so the courtship begins….
Both characters are fascinating, and you can’t take your eyes off them – subtext is rife, and we are always second guessing their motivations and what they really mean to say. Sam Bunkall’s Jimmy is stoic, with a quiet integrity, who tightly bottles up his feelings. Gloria has an abundance of feelings, fickle and changing. She gives up her comfortable life to live with Jimmy, who, when he’s not waiting tables, is a struggling writer of dubious quality (reliant on dubious imagery of martinis and magnolia perfume). He resists her at every turn with “wretched indifference”, and says he doesn’t find her attractive. She interrupts his writing, and thrills in provoking him, always trying to trip him out. There’s real joy as an audience member in witnessing the verbal spars from actors equally matched. Quick witted, cut-throat and clocking up an insane number of words-per-second… its edge-of-your-seat stuff.
Gloria and Jimmy couldn’t be more wrong for each other, and yet oh so right.
While these interactions risk the danger of getting exhausting -there are only ever the two actors onstage – the writing and direction paces itself well for the most part, giving both the audience and actors time to breath. The script too does an excellent job of evoking a wider world and cast of characters, making us feel that there is more at stake than just Gloria and Jimmy.
While the show’s marketing and initial premise plays up its ‘screwball’ repartee, the story and Huber’s beautiful writing has deeper dramatic rewards. An intriguing backstory story and character history emerges at the end, adding a texture and nuance to the banter and events preceding. There seems to be an inner pain in both characters (Gloria remarks that Jimmy the writer wants everyone to be in pain, while her positivity is a mask), and we can enjoy the play for both the surface quips, and a deeper character level.
My friend, who joined me for Glorious knowing little about it, thought the play was from an American writer, and even perhaps from an earlier era, such is its authenticity from Dunedinite Huber. There’s been some heated discussion about the ‘American’ voice of the play after its Wellington season, but I find Glorious rewarding on its own terms. I did find it jarring when they first spoke in American accents, being so used to hearing actors speak ‘kiwi’, especially at the Basement these days – a pleasant realisation!
Glorious seems to have benefitted from continued refinement from previous seasons in Dunedin and Wellington, bringing in ‘re-mounter’ Sam Shore for this Auckland season. The Basement space is elegantly arranged with the audience on three sides, with design credits shared between four members of the cast and crew, and it’s nice to see the stairs to the dressing room, almost always hidden, become a vital part of the set. The precise lighting is also one of the production’s charms.
As I walk out of the Basement into rain and the night air, I pondered about that mysterious thing called attraction, savored the memory of Gloria and Jimmy and had a burning desire to watch with some Katharine Hepburn films.
Glorious plays at The Basement Theatre until 12 November. More information at The Basement.