When a play is described as none other than ‘a libel on the British people’, it’s hard not to sit bolt upright and pay attention. This work is Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell, first staged in 1952 as The Pink Room, and was a critical and commercial disaster. It was then revived in the late Eighties and mid Nineties – the latter with Judi Dench – and was reassessed as a masterpiece. Now, it returns to the National with an appropriately top-flight cast and director, and the air of ‘prestige theatre’ firmly upon it. It is probably best regarded as an interesting curate’s egg, given a production that is both dynamic and, perhaps, misjudged.
The storyline, such as it is, comes on as a mixture of Chekhov, Patrick Hamilton and Terence Rattigan. At the end of the Second World War, an odd assortment of boozers, spongers and fantasists have all set up residence inside the La Vie en Rose nightclub in Soho, and, although few of them appear to like one another, there is a heady atmosphere of sexual abandon, led by the charismatic but deeply insecure hostess Christine (Kate Fleetwood), for whom only a treble whisky will suffice. Drifting miserably through the club is the failed writer Hugh Marriner (Charles Edwards), recently abandoned by his long-term partner, who is trying to feign a heterosexual relationship. Throw in a vile film director, a harsh literary critic and an assortment of ne’er-do-wells and the scene is set for…well, there’s the rub.
As directed by the charismatic wunderkind Joe Hill-Gibbins, on a monolithic set designed by Lizzie Clachan, there is an awful lot going on here, ranging from farcical comedy to moments of dark tragedy, as well as whatever the end of Act One is supposed to signify. What there isn’t is much of a plot. As compared to the superficially similar but vastly superior After the Dance, it’s hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for the wastrels who we see before us. Unsurprisingly, Edwards fares best, but that’s because he is an actor who is possessed of an enormous amount of charisma and likeability; both characteristics are needed to make a moping drunk aspire to near-tragic dimensions. Fleetwood, meanwhile, comes across as glamorous and alluring, which works perfectly well but makes a nonsense of a character who is consistently terrified of being left abandoned by everyone else.
Of the supporting cast, Jonathan Slinger is splendidly hissable as the nasty and predatory director Maurice Hussey, forever stringing the unfortunate Hugh on with promises of financial liberation once his script is bought, and there is some excellent work from Sinead Matthews as a clueless past-it debutante, Danny Webb as an Austrian refugee and Prasanna Puwanarajah as Hugh’s paramour Nigel. The sheer size of the ensemble, at nearly thirty actors, gives this a great deal of heft and an almost epic scale at times. Yet it’s hard to shake the sense that, by the time the Cherry Orchard-aping ending comes around, an awful lot of effort and attention has been expended on something far slighter than the hugely talented team behind it would be expected to rise to.
Absolute Hell at the Lyttelton Theatre until 16th June 2018. For more information and tickets please visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.