Absolute Hell – National Theatre, London

Writer: Rodney Ackland

Director: Joe Hill-Gibbins

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Absolute Hell’s reputation as an epic play is drawn, in part, from failure. Originally produced in 1952 as The Pink Room, Rodney Ackland’s tale of sexual fluidity amid Soho drinking society could not delve as deeply as the playwright wanted, due to the Lord Chamberlain’s censorious grip on the stage.

Revised and expanded by the author in the 1980s, Absolute Hellemerged in its current form, bad language and explicit references to sexuality restored. This 2018 revival, by director Joe Hill-Gibbons, is less shocking because of all the other plays which have dealt with the same or similar subject matter since; but it is still a remarkable spectacle.

Set in a 1945 Soho drinking club, La Vie en Rose, Kate Fleetwood plays Christine Foskett, the club’s proprietor with a soft spot for the American GIs who are still a common sight in a London which has only just celebrated VE Day. Principle among her club membership is Charles Edwards’s Hugh Marriner, a washed-up alcoholic writer who desperately needs £200, but whose friends can barely afford to lend him £2.

Hugh becomes the pivotal character that connects to so many of Ackland’s 30-odd cast. The huge numbers populating the Lyttelton stage allow for some effective crowd scenes around Lizzie Clachan’s impressive, multi-storeyed set: whether crowding around the bar, manically lindy-hopping downstage, or receding into the dark recesses of the townhouse interior, when La Vie en Rose is open it feels like a buzzing hive of activity.

Amidst all the visual flourish of the detailed set and expansive cast lies a tale of disintegrating decadence, as Britain heads for a new post-war era. The General Election of 1945 is seen as a turning point here: with the threat of war lifted, the delicate status quo that had allowed Christine’s business to flourish is threatened. So, too, the delicate balances in each character’s lives are under attack: Edwards in particular bears the brunt of the collapse of his multiple lives, from the phone calls from his nagging wife to his male partner (Prasanna Puwanarajah) who, although they have been in a relationship for nine years, prefers the company of a wealthy woman who he hopes will bankroll his career.

The ancillary characters all have moments to shine: Joanna David feels like a sweet, out of place throwback to a gentler age as Hugh’s mother, as if Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple had wandered into the Mos Eisley Cantina. Lloyd Hutchinson’s former member Michael, who cannot comprehend what being barred from the venue entails, repeatedly disrupts proceedings, one interjection – involving the brandishing and discharge of a service revolver – precipitating the ultimate downfall of the entire enterprise.

Various darkly comic turns from the supporting cast – notable Patricia England’s dotty old woman and Jenny Galloway as the lumpen critic R B Monody – help contribute to the sense that the club is home to many lost souls.

The introduction of so many characters does mean that some can feel rushed, while others, such as Jonathan Slinger’s filmmaker Maurice, lack enough versatility of character to deserve the time spent with them.

The overall effect is the feeling that so much of the show’s three-hour running time is unnecessary, a sense of theatrical water-treading until the next big show-stopping moment is ready to occur. Hill-Gibbons has worked hard to make the play’s three hour running time packed with incident, but he is hampered by so much cruft within the playwright’s text.

As the club’s livelihood is threatened, and people’s lives start to fall apart, these are generally fair-weather friends who cannot, or do not want to, extend the hand of friendship to their fellow members beyond buying them the occasional drink. Hell is other people, Sartre may have suggested, but Absolute Hell is when they turn their back on you.

Runs until 16 June 2018 | Image: Johan Persson

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One Comment

  1. “The overall effect is the feeling that so much of the show’s three-hour running time is unnecessary”

    Strange how differently people can react to the same thing. Until I read this review it hadn’t occurred to me to ask whether x% of the production was necessary. I certainly couldn’t calculate how much could be cut without the atmosphere being completely lost. How much repetition, how much of the same thing happening in subtly different ways or, to mention a feature you missed, how many circuits of the stage must the silent streetwalker Fifi do ‘on her rounds’ before it becomes too much? They’re all pretty much ‘how long is a piece of string’ questions. All I know is that, to extend the metaphor, for me the string remained taut for the full three hours – which is more than I can say for some recent NT productions. I suppose it makes a difference if you recall the social conditions that caused this kind of establishment to thrive; not specifically the immediate post-war conditions but the rigid licensing laws that drove people from diverse backgrounds to the kind of place where you could find drink, company and conviviality when the pubs were shut. I remember those days – in Soho and other places – and, ironically such ‘Private Members Clubs’ were often more inclusive, and certainly more tolerant, than the wider society. The title seems to me altogether more fitting than the earlier ‘The Pink Room’. It’s a vision of a certain kind of hell with people trapped in an endless round of dour sybaritism where the only way it could get worse would be for it to stop, leaving the denizens bereft – as witness the plight of Michael and the scenes towards the end when several characters seem unable to absorb the fact that its over. I thought this production was very well acted and beautifully choreographed. Whether the play itself is a great one almost seemed a moot point.

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