Review: Absolute Hell, National Theatre

A characterful slice of seedy Soho life,  Absolute Hell is anything but at the National Theatre

“You won’t call the police, I’ll call the police”

We’ve all got a history, a bit of a chequered past and Rodney Ackland’s play Absolute Hell is no exception. Premiered in 1952 under the title The Pink Room, it received an enormous critical drubbing which led to a 40 year near-silence from the playwright. But as time passes, trends shift and plays eventually get rewritten, a new version of the drama emerged in the late 1980s to considerably more success.

It is that version that is being revived here by Joe Hill-Gibbins with the kind of luxury casting that National Theatres are made for. And with the world of this slice-of-life play being made up of a vast ensemble of characters, it’s a great fit. Absolute Hell is set in a Soho members club in the period between the end of WWII and the Labour general election win and follows its patrons as they retreat from the social (and physical) upheaval of wartime into a fug of drink, drugs and debauchery.

And as it stretches leisurely over three hours, we skate deliciously over these ne’er-do-wells and their ne’er-do-welling. They’re led by Kate Fleetwood’s Christine is the hostess who welcomes all with a fixed smile, barely hiding the haunting loneliness she can’t quite keep at bay. And also featuring strongly is Charles Edwards’ Hugh is a writer struggling to retread past glories and to keep his relationship with long-term lover and war vet Nigel (an excellent Prasanna Puwanarajah) intact.

Among many others, there’s also Sinéad Matthews’ party girl, Jonathan Slinger’s queenish movie producer, Eileen Walsh’s batty Oirish preacher, Aaron Heffernan’s inquisitive and horny GI, Stephanie Jacob’s hard-working factotum. And in the almost claustrophobic darkness of Lizzie Clachan’s set design, their trials and tribulations play out with vivid characterisation and an often-striking resonance. There’s little sense of an over-arching plot which may turn some off but Hill-Gibbins proves that it isn’t needed, the connective tissue that holds them together is the sticky floor of the club as much as anything.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval, and a pause)
Photos: Johan Persson
Absolute Hell is booking at the National Theatre until 16th June

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