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Theatre review: Absolute Hell

John Nathan isn't impressed by an over-stuffed plot

Lyttleton Theatre

    Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell
    Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell (Photo: Johan Persson)

    In 1952 Rodney Ackland’s play, then known as The Pink Room, was probably the first attempt by the British stage to refer to the Holocaust. The play didn’t go down well. Punters and theatre management didn’t like it. But not because of the Holocaust, rather because of the cross section of far from heroic dissolutes who Ackland presents as the inheritors of Britain’s victory.

    Set just after the end of World War Two in Europe, the play is brimful of bohemians who escape the reality of their lives by living most of it in the premises of La Vie en Rose, a bomb-damaged Soho drinking club. It is run by Christine Foskett (Kate Fleetwood) a generous-to-a-fault extrovert who pours drinks as liberally for herself as she does for her clientele.

    Among them is struggling writer Hugh Marriner (Charles Edwards). He needs a £200 loan to pay urgent debts and so prevent his faltering 16-year relationship with Nigel from failing altogether.

    Unfortunately the amiable Austrian refugee Siegfried (Danny Webb) can only manage a couple of pounds, much of which Hugh uses to buy Siegfried drinks. So Hugh eventually gets the dosh from Maurice Hussey (Jonathan Slinger), a sadistically flamboyant agent upon whom Hugh has placed all his hopes of selling his film script.

    These are are just four of of the many as much as twenty individual plots which Ackland throws together like a bowl of spaghetti. And the big challenge for director Joe Hill-Gibbins and his cast of 24 actors is to ensure the timing of interruptions and intersections of dialogue and plot are spot on so that the frankly contrived structure feels natural. This they do with immense skill. But for most of this three hour production there is barely a moment of stillness.

    That’s not to say there is not much to admire in the way Ackland places gay characters centre stage. It was a brave decision for the time although this version of the play, rewritten for Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre in 1988, is much more explicit about the sexuality of its protagonists than the original.

    However, this is the second time the National has attempted to present actor, screenwriter and playwright Ackland born in Westcliff-on-Sea as Norman Ackland Bernstein (his father was Jewish) in 1908 as a great, lost dramatist. The previous attempt was in 1995 for which the role of Christine was played by Judi Dench. I didn’t see it but this production has in common with that one a wealth of acting talent. And no doubt as Dench did back then, Fleetwood’s Christine transmits a monumentally tragic loneliness.

    It’s that enforced solitude that drives her to drink and draws her to men, preferably in uniform. One of them, is a British officer who has seen the “horror camps”. He has a message from one of the camp’s victims to be delivered a friend, one of Christine’s posh party animals (Sinead Matthews). The officer has pictures of the camps too and the scene in which the club’s general debauchery gives way to silent, sobering shock is a moment of rare poignancy. As is the rapprochement between Hugh and Nigel a moment of surprising tenderness.

    But it all comes very late and for the most part, watching this play is a bit like being the only sober guest at party, where everyone is far more fascinated in themselves than they deserve to be.

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