Thursday, 26 April 2018

Theatre review: Absolute Hell

It takes a certain amount of confidence to call a play Absolute Hell, given the likelihood it’ll end up doing the reviewers’ job for them; of course Rodney Ackland’s 1945 play, not produced until 1952, was originally called The Pink Room, which is only going to result in people like me saying something vague and misinformed about vaginas, so maybe titles were just never his forte. Set shortly after VE Day and either side of the General Election that would put Labour in power, Absolute Hell takes place in the Vie En Rose Club, a private members’ bar run, nominally – her staff regularly grumble about doing all of the work for none of the credit – by Kate Fleetwood’s Christine. A seemingly gregarious hostess with a penchant for men in uniform who tends to get as drunk as any of her customers, she really cuts a painfully lonely figure who needs the club and its clientele to keep her from despair.

The Blitz may be over but not all the structural damage it’s done has become apparent yet, and parts of the ceiling have a tendency to fall in at unexpected moments (Lizzie Clachan’s set is ominously imposing.) The wider changes that come from the new peace will be as much of a threat to the club as the fact that the building’s crumbling.

This is a play with a large ensemble cast and the National’s resources mean Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production gets luxury casting, led by Charles Edwards as failed writer Hugh, who’s as much beset by financial worries as he is by the fact that his boyfriend of nine years, Nigel (Prasanna Puwanarajah,) has returned from the War a newly cold, buttoned-up character, and is considering leaving him for a sham marriage. Jonathan Slinger is memorably unlikeable as vicious queen Maurice, a film producer who uses his elevated position to get attractive young men into dubious casting calls, and sneer at anyone less fortunate, while his long-suffering “assistant” (Esh Alladi) is the most common target of his random fits of rage. And there’s also Aaron Heffernan as a G.I. both Christine and Hugh show an interest in, because when Joe Hill-Gibbins does a show at the National there has to be one Heff or other involved.

I heard a lot of rumours during previews that Absolute Hell was living up to its title for audiences, so I went in with fairly low expectations and to start with, at least, the show proved mercifully better than expected. It does appear to have shed about half an hour from its running time during those previews, which doesn’t hurt, and the lengthy (about 85 minutes) first act maintains a strong sense of action as we’re introduced to an ever-growing cast of eccentrics and lost souls, and the characters’ excesses entertain even as they’re undercut by their personal tragedies. There’s a particularly cruel touch in the fact that the club’s resident celebrity, the journalist R B Monody (Jenny Galloway,) is treated as royalty – she just so happens to be the critic whose review of Hugh’s book tanked his career.

But having set everybody up Ackland proves not to have much to do with them in the second act; the final scene suffers particularly from a problem common in Chekhovian plays with huge casts, in that it tries to give everyone their parting shot – sometimes the audience has enjoyed a minor character’s contribution without needing to see how their story pans out, and when everyone gets their final moment you can really feel the time dragging on. (Eileen Walsh’s Madge, for example, is a batty religious fanatic preaching that Jesus was born on Boxing Day; it’s a scene-stealing turn in the first half of the play but the character’s not really much more than a single joke so there’s diminishing returns with every appearance.) There are a lot of these standout moments among the cast; Sinéad Matthews is reliably heartbreaking as Elizabeth, who’s been hit more personally than most by the War – she gets news during the play that a friend of hers was found in a concentration camp – and has buried herself completely into a party-girl persona to avoid having to think about it. Danny Webb is Siegfried, the Austrian sugar-daddy who’ll never have her full attention.

This revival has been partly promoted on how controversial the play was when first produced*, something that, when the controversy fades with time, needs something else to back it up and make what’s left still watchable. It is, for the most part, but there’s also a lot of indulgence in how long Ackland keeps his characters hanging around that undoes a lot of the early good work and makes the play feel old-fashioned. A bit more ruthless pruning could have showcased what still works about the play, without letting it outstay its welcome the way it does.

Absolute Hell by Rodney Ackland is booking in repertory until the 16th of June at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including one interval and one pause.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

*presumably because of all the gay characters; there’s some swearing but, as this is a version the playwright revised in 1988, I can’t be certain all of that was always present

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