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Absolute Hell by Rodney Ackland | Lyttelton Theatre – National Theatre

Liza Sadovy as Lettice Willis (The Treacle Queen), Absolute Hell (c) Johan Persson
Liza Sadovy as Lettice Willis (The Treacle Queen), Absolute Hell (c) Johan Persson

As you know, one person’s pain is another person’s poison, so what Christine Foskett (Kate Fleetwood) considers ‘absolute hell’ in Absolute Hell might not be quite so disastrous for someone else. As a whole, the show flows reasonably well, but there are so many characters and storylines going on that despite a three-hour running time, it still feels a little rushed. Some characters, such as Sam Mitchum (Martins Imhangbe), develop substantially, while others, like the filmmaker Maurice Hussey (Jonathan Slinger) remain steadfastly unchanging.

This appears to be a portrait of a form of escapism that the members of ‘La Vie En Rose’, a private members club run by Christine, indulge in, carrying on being social (or, indeed, anti-social) and drinking their evenings away. VE Day has come and gone, but there is still a need for these people to belong, and when the club is forced to close due to structural damage to its premises, the consequences for its members are varied but nonetheless more far-reaching than the mere closure of an establishment would suggest at face value.

On one level, Christine’s cries of despair in the final moment (or two) of the play could be seen as political: as the 1945 General Election results are confirmed, Labour supporters gathered in a building opposite Christine’s club are understandably jubilant. The more they party, the greater Christine’s pain becomes. But it seemed to me to be more a case of reaping what was sown – her trusted assistant, Doris (Stephanie Jacob) was almost always being belittled and blamed for this, that and the other thing. Eventually, she resigns, as does the club’s Cook (Fiz Marcus), and so Christine might have had support had she not been so abrasive.

She’s not the only character lacking tact. Madge (Eileen Walsh), condemns every member of ‘La Vie En Rose’ to Hell, while Michael Crowley (Lloyd Hutchinson) refuses to comprehend what is meant by being barred. But if this is meant to be a dark comedy, it is simply not comic enough. Much has been made, for instance, about one critic proclaiming the play “a libel on the British people” on its first run in 1952. In 2018, in ‘the Age of Trump’ and a Home Office dealing with the fall-out from ‘the Windrush scandal’ (which appears to involve, ludicrously, British citizens being offered British citizenship), a literal slap in the face or the hurling of semi-comprehensible insults while under the influence of alcohol is simply not going to grossly offend an unassuming National Theatre audience.

The play, then, despite revisions following the abolition of theatre censorship in 1968, has not aged perfectly. Few characters are able to deal with their problems head-on; even Nigel Childs (Prasanna Puwanarajah), who comes across as relatively level-headed, eventually has seemingly unresolvable problems in his personal life. Elsewhere, people are complaining about life, drinking to excess or having superfluous sexual relations: some do all three. After a while, it is difficult to feel much sympathy. Even Mrs Marriner (Joanna David), the mother of writer Hugh (Charles Edwards), begins to irritate, berating her son for the most trivial of issues.

The Company, Absolute Hell (c) Johan Persson
The Company, Absolute Hell (c) Johan Persson

The cast is sizeable but, strictly speaking, need not have been as large as it was. Thirteen actors are listed as ‘club members’ in the cast list, but the advantage of being able to better recreate the hustle and bustle of a busy Soho club is ultimately negligible. Best enjoyed as a period play, the lack of political correctness was rather refreshing (for me, anyway), and while it ebbs and flows, there’s some good acting to be enjoyed from a cast doing brilliantly with what they’re given.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Bomb-blasted London. A Soho den in the hangover from World War II, where members drink into the darkness, night after night. Lying, fighting and seducing, these lost souls and bruised lovers struggle from the rubble of war towards an unknown future.

Absolute Hell, Rodney Ackland’s extraordinarily provocative play, was condemned as ‘a libel on the British people’ when first performed in 1952. Now it emerges as an intoxicating plunge into post-war Soho; full of despair and longing.

Joe Hill-Gibbins returns to the NT to direct a large ensemble in this new production of Absolute Hell.

The cast includes Esh Alladi, Elizabeth Andrewartha, Ashley Byan, Jonathan Coote, Carole Dance, Joanna David, Charles Edwards, Patricia England, Kate Fleetwood, Jenny Galloway, Aaron Heffernan, Simon Hepworth, Lloyd Hutchinson, Martins Imhangbe, Stephanie Jacob, Fiz Marcus, Sinéad Matthews, Connor Mills, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Anita Reynolds, John Sackville, Liza Sadovy, Jonathan Slinger, Eileen Walsh, Danny Webb and Jade Yourell.

Absolute Hell
by Rodney Ackland
Now playing until 16 June
Running Time: Approx. 3 hours, inc. a 15 min interval and a 5 min pause


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