Absolute Hell – Bohemian Chaos in London’s 1940s

THE journey of The Pink Room to Absolute Hell is an extraordinary one. Yet it does not mean that The National Theatre’s production of the Rodney Ackland play is extraordinary. Only fleetingly so although it is makes for an entertaining evening.

The play, based on Bohemian London in the aftermath of the Second World War, was first produced 67 years ago (The Pink Room) and at the time poorly received. Indeed, so badly that it closed after three weeks and caused a rift between Ackland and the play’s producer Terence Rattigan so deep that it was never healed.

It was only in 1987, with Ackland still alive, that the play was reinvigorated (by the writer) and staged at the Orange Tree in London’s Richmond. With no censor to worry about, the play (now retitled Absolute Hell) was more in keeping with what Ackland had always envisaged. It was received with acclaim.

The National’s version, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, has much to applaud it. It is based around Christine Foskett’s crumbling drinking club (La Vie en Rose) in London’s Soho, just as Clement Attlee’s Labour Government is being elected (1945) and news of the Nazi death camps across Europe is still being shockingly absorbed by the nation.

The club introduces us to an assortment of characters who love to party. They also like a drink or six, consuming quantities of whisky that would today instantly label them alcoholics and candidates ripe for a spell in the Priory.

There are eccentrics galore – the slightly batty Julia (Patricia Shillitoe) lost in her own little world and the constantly inebriated Lettice Willis (Liza Sadovy) who sounds like a mix between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen and staggers around the stage in an alcoholic haze. ‘Anybody who voted Labour today should be shot,’ she splutters at one stage. Yes, our Maggie.

Then there is Michael (Lloyd Hutchinson), an unbalanced former prisoner of war who (you guessed it) is an alcoholic – a broke one at that, railing against everything and everyone. Maurice (Jonathan Slinger) is a film producer, camp, hard drinking and vile, treating his man servant Cyril (Esh Alladi) with contempt. If individuals could spit venom like snakes, Maurice’s poison would be lethal. A rattlesnake of a man.

And there is Elizabeth (Sinead Mathews) who has a penchant for fit military men as voracious as Christine’s (Kate Fleetwood) – and treats her faithful Austrian friend Siegfried (Danny Webb) contemptuously. Oh and one must not forget religious crackpot Madge (Eileen Walsh) who believes Jesus Christ was born on Boxing Day and Christine’s loyal dogsbody Doris (Stephanie Jacob).

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Images by Johan Persson

It sometimes feels like a cast of thousands. But the play’s focal point is Hugh Marriner (Charles Edwards), a gay writer who has fallen on hard times and is struggling to keep his relationship going with bisexual lover Nigel (Prasanna Puwanarajah). He cadges drinks, cigarettes and money from anyone and everyone. Never far away is a doting mother (Joanna David) who par for the course is slightly scatty, enjoys the odd Cherry Brandy and keeps insisting that Hugh wears a hat.

Absolute Hell is all rather chaotic and frenetic. A smorgasbord of characters. But it works.

There are some wonderful moments such as the opening of Act Two when the whole cast end up dancing and the ending of the first Act when Christine is about to succumb to a multitude of fit GIs wearing animal masks. An orgy that is no more than a dream. Frustration is Christine’s middle name.

There is also some brilliant acting from Edwards (the glue who holds the play together), Puwanarajah (sensitive), Shillitoe (wonderfully doddery and mad), Sadovy (play stealing) and Martin Imhangbe and Aaron Heffernan – two GIs, respectively the thoughtful (Sam), the other (Butch) who is only intent on getting laid (by male or female).

The set, comprising the drinking den’s four floors, is cleverly designed by Lizzie Clachan with the offices of the Labour Party perched high back stage (where the clatter of a typewriter emanates from) to remind us that in amongst all the louche behaviour there is an election going on that will transform the country (triggering the formation of the National Health Service).

Only the National Theatre could produce such a bold – and hugely populated – production of Absolute Hell. Sometimes it is more like Absolute Chaos but there is enough in the three-hour play to keep the viewer interested. Maybe the high number of empty seats suggests otherwise. But it is a far more rewarding experience than Macbeth that is currently playing in the same building.

Absolute Hell runs until June 16.

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Images by Johan Persson

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