Review of Absolute Hell, National Theatre, London Southbank:
Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell was originally titled ‘The Pink Room’ and was first produced in 1952; it was met with a resounding slating from the critics. In 1988 it was revised and revived at the Orange Tree Theatre to much more acclaim and went on to be performed on television in 1991, then again at the National in 1995.
So with an ongoing fascination for Ackland’s epic play, Joe Hill-Gibbins directs this new ambitious production on the Lyttleton stage at the National with what seems like a cast of thousands but is in fact 28, the 3 hour show gets off to good start as opens on a song from the superbly orchestrated ensemble who set the scene in a chorus line in front of the curtain.
Set in 1945 in Soho nightclub La Vie en Rose, in post-war Britain and a with a political landscape which is in the wake of a General Election and the Labour party on the brink of a landslide.
Lizzie Clachan’s apt set creates a building on multilayers, inhabited by a smoky dark nightclub adorned in shabby furnishings and ornate pink table lamps, all of which is somewhat symbolic of the tired lives of its clientele.
The play focuses on the world inside this suitably seedy venue where its hedonistic members made up of bohemians, creatives, intellectuals and social misfits, gain a sense of belonging, falling into a regular drunken haze and debauchery united by their loneliness and a deep disenchantment with life.
Proprietress Christine (Kate Fleetwood) is played as a faded sexy siren in a crimson dress who is only too aware of age creeping up on her, desperately scared of being alone she seeks solace with the GIs. Christine’s anguished need to be loved sees her drunkenly stripping to be the centre of an orgy where a group of American GI’s repugnantly have their way with her whilst all wearing unnerving animal masks.
There were some distinctively good performances which attempted to bring some life into this slightly lacklustre play that in some respects hasn’t survived the passing of time. Notably brilliant was Charles Edwards, as writer Hugh Marriner whose personal and professional failings and hopeless yearning for his lover Nigel are played out with an easy charm. I also enjoyed a characterful performance from Daniel Webb as Siegfried, a black marketer, and Hugh’s lover Nigel was portrayed with endearing appeal by Prasanna Puwanarajah. Jonathan Slinger made a painfully vile film producer Maurice and Sinéad Matthew’s sassy period siren Elizabeth was full of promise.
Only after censorship was abolished was Ackland able to make the play more focused on the character’s sexuality and far more explicitly homosexual. This production embraces the once clandestine the gay scene and central to the piece is Hugh’s relationship with Nigel which reminds us of just how much times have changed as we witness Nigel opting out in hope of an easier life.
Absolute Hell is a provocative, yet dated play, it meandered, lacking a real narrative. There’s little reference to the destruction of war other than the news that Elizabeth’s friend has died in a concentration camp, and they are all so wrapped up in their personal decline that they are seemingly unaware of each other’s pain or of the political events that surround them.
However, as the club heads for its ultimate end, the collapsing roof of the club pours down dust, which provides an appropriate metaphor for the failings of its patronage, or perhaps the fall out of the war and a bleak sense of cloaked inadequacy. Whilst chanting in the wings are the Labour voters of 1945 “The workers’ flag is deepest red”.
Absolute Hell is at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, London until 16 June
Box office: 020-7452 3000 or via the National Theatre Website