It was condemned as a “libel on the British people” when first performed in 1952 but now Rodney Ackland’s sprawling multi-stranded play Absolute Hell returns to the London stage in a new production, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton Auditorium.
We are in the summer of 1945 and chaos reigns at La Vie En Rose, a sordid Soho nightclub, close to the headquarters of the Labour Party. A general election is imminent and a labour landslide is on the cards. Familiar social boundaries are being dissolved, yet the mood is sour, as if some of wartime’s unusual sexual freedoms are about to be revoked.
Presiding over the club is the half glamorous half tragic host, Christine. The war may be over but the club’s dissolute clientele of lost souls carry it with them. Mostly though, they try to forget, drowning their sorrows with booze, sex and socialising. However, a whiff of desperation hangs in the air like cigarette smoke and at any time one of them is at risk of collapse.
The club’s regulars include Hugh Marriner, a writer who has had some success in his youth but has fallen on hard times and spends his evening cadging cigarettes and soaking up whiskey, party girl Elizabeth Collier, desperately trying not to think about her friend interned in a “horror camp”, glorious eccentric aristocrat Lettice Williams, known as The Treacle Queen, and Madge, who is convinced Jesus was born on Boxing Day. There is also Maurice Hussey, an obnoxious film producer who views everyone around him as a source of amusement, Michael Crawley, a near-permanently inebriated artist, Australian black marketer Siegfried Shrager (who is often referred to as “Siegfried Sassoon”) and an imposing literary critic, R.B Monody. The club is also frequented by a succession of GIs, most of whom Christine tries to bed.
No doubt what upset people most at the time of its first performance was its unvarnished portrait of a society on its knees and its depiction of deliberate excess. Ackland was so hurt by its critical reception that he wrote very little for the next 40 years. But the National Theatre’s 1995 production rescued the play from obscurity and revealed it as a major piece of work that asked searching questions of the political system and about attitudes towards sexuality. The new NT production feels very fresh and not all that dated, with a fine sense of the characters’ hollow camaraderie. It is also one of the first plays in which one of the central themes is the horror of the Holocaust and the characters’ struggle to come to terms with the inhumanity of it – Elizabeth discovers that her friend perished in the Treblinka concentration camp. It also contains an emotionally complex portrayal of a homosexual relationship (brave for the time), a flawed and messy union, but one that is genuinely affectionate. On the debit side, the production is overlong at three hours and could do with some judicious pruning and tightening.
Lizzie Clachan’s atmospheric set of the seedy nightclub, lit by rosy pink lampshades, and crumbling as a result of bomb damage makes you feel as though you’re actually there.
Heading a stellar cast is Kate Fleetwood, who manages to effortlessly convey Christine’s loneliness and fragility beneath a veneer of brassy self-assurance. Charles Edwards impresses as the down-on-his-luck sodden writer, Hugh Marriner, while Joanna David is empathetic as his amusing, well-meaning mother. Sinead Matthews is particularly good as Elizabeth Collier, nailing the young socialite’s offhand, funny cruelty. Fine work too from the rest of the ensemble: Jonathan Slinger (Maurice Hussey), Liza Sadovy (The Treacle Queen), Eileen Walsh (Madge) Lloyd Hutchinson (Michael Crowley), Danny Webb (Siegfried Shrager) and Jenny Galloway (R.B Monody)
In all then, the play is a bold and ambitious work that manages to be both funny and provocative.
Runs at the Lyttleton Theatre until Saturday 16 June 2018
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