Last Updated on 27th April 2018
Paul T Davies reviews Rodney Ackland’s play Absolute Hell now playing at the National Theatre
26 April 2018
Rodney Ackland’s play has a difficult history probably as well known as the play itself. First presented in 1952 as The Pink Room, its depiction of a clapped out bohemian Soho drinking den offended theatre goers with its depiction of alcoholics, homosexuals and prostitution. In a time of rebuilding and optimism no one wanted to view the under belly of society. The critical lashing more or less ensured the end of his play writing career, until it was revived as Absolute Hell in the early 90s and provided a vehicle for Judi Dench, performing the lead role of Christine Foskett a the National in 1995. Set in the fag end days after the end of the Second World War, the club La Vie En Rose is much like the legendary Colony Rooms, frequented by the likes of Francis Bacon and presided over by Muriel Belcher. It is a world perfectly depicted in Lizzie Clachan’s crumbling set, yet the production fails to get to the heart of Ackland’s script, relying too much on gimmicks to distract the audience from the text.
Fortunately the play teems with superb characters and an excellent cast make the most of the roles given them. Christine is a gem of a part, and Kate Fleetwood grabs it with relish, scurrying around the stage, desperately urging her club members to “love each other”, clinging to any man in uniform for company, her loneliness only partially dimmed by the pink lighting. Her Absolute Hell is to be left alone, which she is in her condemned club at the conclusion, crying into the dark- a gripping performance. Charles Edwards is excellent as failed writer Hugh Marriner, cadging cigarettes,bickering with his mother, (excellent Joanna David), broke and living off loans, breaking up with his partner Nigel, a self hating queer played beautifully by Prasanna Puwanarajah, their scenes particularly moving. Excellent Sinead Matthews is fading champagne socialite Elizabeth Collier, the war crashing through her protective bubble when she sees photographs of her friend incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camps- Ackland is a brave writer in bringing the holocaust onto the stage in 1952. Jonathan Slinger is show stealing as sleazy film director Maurice Hussey, glorifying in the misfortune of others, making his hideous casting couch all too clear. There are a host of entertaining characters in the supporting cast, including Lloyd Hutchinson’s Bacon like painter, Eileen Walsh’s Madge and Danny Webb’s moving and loyal Siegfried.
Yet the director, Joe Hill-Gibbins, seems unable to let the play speak for itself, imposing his directorial vision unnecessarily on what is, essentially, a character led drama. This is signalled from the outset when the cast line up in front of the curtain to sing a verse and chorus of Piaf’s La Vie En Rose, just in case we didn’t get the name of the club. The chorus move like a flock of sheep, clumping around the stage noisily, upstaging the main action, and, most distracting of all, is the treatment of the prostitute Fifi, Rachel Dale forced to circuit the stage throughout the evening. It doesn’t matter what is taking place centre stage, be it a hilarious scene of bitchiness, a sequence of necessary exposition, or a heartbreaking revelation, here comes Fifi, pulling focus away from the action –irritating and not necessary.
With a play that teems with energy, I’m at a loss to explain why the production took a frustratingly long three hours to perform. Ackland’s play is like a time capsule of forgotten Soho, discovered during bomb disposal. Yet this production doesn’t let the play speak for itself. Not quite absolute Hell, but also never taking flight enough to theatrical Heaven.