Absolute Hell Provides Dark Delight At National Theatre

Absolute Hell, National Theatre ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 14 months ago

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Absolute Hell Provides Dark Delight At National Theatre Absolute Hell, National Theatre 4
Photo: Johan Persson

Rodney Ackland’s The Pink Room bombed when it was first staged in 1952, but after he rewrote it as Absolute Hell 35 years later it became a hit. In a less censorious era, he was able to be more explicit about the characters’ sexuality, especially those who were gay, in this decadent portrait of post-war London.

Set in a seedy Soho club, La Vie en Rose, between VE Day and Labour’s victory in the 1945 general election, this tragicomic play depicts a group of lost souls who are drinking to forget the horrors of war. Ackland assembles a colourful bunch of eccentrics from different classes, including bohemians, black marketeers and GIs, all hell-bent on keeping the party going while the bomb-damaged building literally crumbles around them.

Photo: Johan Persson

Ackland’s metaphor of a destructive, self-centred society giving way to a brave new socialist world doesn’t quite hold up, in a play that lacks narrative drive. But though his characters are sleazily narcissistic they are fantastically entertaining and the dialogue overflows with camp humour. As the club’s proprietor, Kate Fleetwood oozes desperate sensuality, while Charles Edwards’ debt-ridden, declining writer is equally afraid of being alone.

Photo: Johan Persson

Joe Hill-Gibbons marshals a cast of 28 in an exhilarating expressionist production that makes full use of the huge Lyttelton stage, with Lizzie Clachan’s elaborate, multi-level set featuring dark corners and pink lampshades. Three hours may seem a long time to spend in a dive with boozers, but the effect is like going on a bender without a hangover.

Absolute Hell, National Theatre, Upper Ground, South Bank, Se1 9PX. Tickets £15–67. Until 16 June 2018.  

Last Updated 27 April 2018