Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell was originally conceived as The Pink Room. The work delving into the hilarious and often tragic lives of the members of Soho Club La Vie en Rose in the final days of WWII, jarred with the nation’s post-war positivity when it debuted in 1952, and ended Ackland’s career. It was over 30 years later in 1987 when his work was successfully revived at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre that Ackland rewrote The Pink Room, loosening the chains of censorship that 1950s Britain had imposed and creating Absolute Hell.
The result is a wild, rich and entertaining romp, tinged with sadness and cigarette smoke. La Vie en Rose, with its pink light fittings, black walls, and seemingly open bar is landlady Christine’s life. Desperate to be loved, Kate Fleetwood’s Christine is a sprightly drunk, desperate for male attention, and haunted by the hell of being left alone. Fleetwood strikes the right balance for our vulnerable, yet boisterous lead, and carries the weight of the whole show without an ounce of difficulty.
The other central character – Hugh Mariner – is a struggling writer, whose relationship with his partner of nine years Nigel, is coming to an end. A nod to Ackland’s own experience when The Pink Room flopped, Mariner is a lovable mess, spectacularly brought to life by Charles Edwards.
The cast is so big it can barely fit on the stage, but the main players are fantastic and the jumps between quick quips almost faultless. Special mention must go to Sinéad Matthews as socialite Elizabeth Collier, who has perfected the ideal husk of the ‘rich bitch’, every word imbued with cigarettes and a triple whiskey. While Jonathan Slinger as camp film director Maurice Hussey is snide, frivolous and the embodiment of a foot-in-mouth gossip.
Lizzie Clachan’s set is dark, intricate, and detailed – even the pink house curtain evokes La Vie en Rose. That said, most of the hard work is unseen by the audience – the mid-tier dining room can be barely seen, and merely acts as an on-stage resting place for out-of-scene actors.
The only real qualm I have is its length. Absolute Hell was originally four hours long, and according to National Theatre insiders, has been shaved down in previews to get us to this three-hour feast. Frankly, it is still too long, and the first half is the big offender – there was a smattering of empty seats that had once been filled post-interval. Despite this, it’s worth persevering. Absolute Hell is a laugh-out-loud snapshot into the milieu of post-war Soho, and while it must be said nothing much happens, it’s worth a watch.
Absolute Hell is playing at the National Theatre until 16 June
Photo: Johan Persson