Rodney Ackland’s play ‘Absolute Hell’ (at the National Theatre until 16 June) is like spying on a drunken party through a club door. The first hour is intoxicating, in a salacious sort of way, but then it all starts to feel a bit maudlin and you just want them to drink up so you can go home.
The play takes place in ‘La Vie en Rose’, a seedy Soho drinking den (modelled on the Colony rooms) full of confused, desperate characters seeking sex and oblivion. It is set in the summer of 1945, in a war weary London that is under the shadow of Auschwitz and on the brink of a Labour Government. Although the clientele are determined to hide from the outside world, the gold veneer of the club begins to peel away, revealing the dull undercoat of post war life.
When it was first produced in 1952, as the ‘Pink Room’, the homosexuality was played down but the sordid, decadent world it depicted was still too much for the respectable theatre audiences of the time. It soon ended Ackland’s career. It was only until 1988 when it was re-discovered, first at the Orange Tree in Richmond, and then again at the National with Judi Dench who also starred in the 1991 BBC film of the play.
It runs on for over 3 hours and, although it has a cast of nearly thirty members, there are only 2 real characters – Christine, the lonely, emotionally fragile club owner (a charismatic and sensual Kate Fleetwood) and Hugh a gay, failing-writer (brilliantly played by Charles Edwards) who is constantly on the cadge. Esh Alladi is excellent in the minor role of camp dogsbody Cyril Clatworthy. Sinead Matthews wrings out some emotion as hedonist Elizabeth. The rest of the ensemble (black GIs, gay critics, film producers, tormented artists, black marketers and a prostitute name Fifi who endlessly circles the streets of nearby Piccadilly) only serve to emphasise the real subject of the play – the desperate desire to escape a bombed out London through the neck of a bottle.
There are moments of real humour in the play (some of it dated) and the action is skilfully choreographed however, the last two scenes of the play are rushed, unsatisfactory and could be cut. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins does his best to make the play relevant but, the truth is, nothing much happens and watching others getting drunk is rather boring. By the end the jokes have turned stale and the characters’ search for sex has gone flaccid. The club literally starts to fall apart around them, the party is over and the hangover has already started to set in.
The final word of the play is hell.
Absolute Hell is running until 16th June at the National Theatre/ Lyttelton theatre.
By David Ford