Review: Absolute Hell (National Theatre)

Rodney Ackland’s play set in a Soho private members’ club is revived at the National Theatre

Kate Fleetwood as Christine in Absolute Hell
Kate Fleetwood as Christine in Absolute Hell
© Johan Persson

Absolute Hell has had a troubled history. When it first appeared in 1952, as The Pink Room, it was panned by the critics and its failure led to a permanent breach between its author Rodney Ackland and the playwright Terence Rattigan, who produced it. One critic branded its portrayal of the group of drinkers gathered in a crumbling club on the days surrounding Labour's victory in the 1945 General Election as a "libel on the British people." Ackland retired from playwriting, bruised.

Then in 1987, three years before Ackland's death, the Orange Tree Theatre rediscovered the play, presenting it in a much-reworked version which made explicit the homosexuality and bisexuality suppressed in the '50s thanks to fears of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship. This version, renamed Absolute Hell, was acclaimed as a bold breakthrough; a subsequent revival in 1995 at the National Theatre, directed by Anthony Page and starring Judi Dench as the disenchanted, terrified club proprietor Christine, still brings happy tears of remembrance to the eyes of those who saw it.

Now it is back, directed by rising director Joe Hill-Gibbins, and with a distinguished cast headed by Kate Fleetwood and Charles Edwards (of Downton Abbey fame) filling the play's 20 speaking parts. I was excited to see it but I found the results, well, absolute hell.

The play as presented here seems brave but not really very good. It runs to more than three hours, with an interval and a pause. Annie Baker's John, a play with exactly the same running time recently presented at the same address, passed in the blink of an eye as far as I was concerned. This tragi-comedy seems a sprawling mess, shooting in all directions for a very long time.

The basic set up is very simple. At the dog end of the war, members of all types of British demi-monde society gather together in a club called La Vie en Rose which, with heavy-handed symbolism, bathes its dilapidated rooms in a rosy lamp-lit glow. All are, in some ways, refugees from reality, drinking hard to forget their current state. There's a bankrupt novelist (Edwards), his mother (Joanna David), a brash film producer (Jonathan Slinger) a lost old lady (Patricia England) and a shifting cast of aimless GIs.

In this production, they meet and shout at each other, while surrounded by a large chorus of characters who rush from the back of the stage to the front to watch the action, swaying gently through particular scenes. In an already busy and confusing drama, the effect is to make the action even busier, distracting from the scraps of story, highlighting the play's deficiencies while seeking to disguise them. There are songs and dances. Fifi the prostitute walks endlessly around the square of Lizzie Clachan's set, which plonks a massive stairwell in the centre of the stage, cramming characters into a small central bar area, which is impossible to see from the side of the Lyttelton's stalls.

It is this basic lack of stagecraft that baffles me. I am prepared to accept that there is a brutal new fashion which seeks to bring classic plays up to date by throwing them in your face very loudly. I noted Labour's promise to build new homes, on a poster on the wall, in the election office we glimpse upstage; I recognised both the contrast with the frightened pointless bohemians milling around too drunk to take action, and the relevance of the play's themes about fear and apathy to today's Britain.

But I can't understand decisions that mean the leading characters are constantly upstaged by the people around them, or that tender scenes between the novelist and his lover, who is trying to go straight, are played at the edge of the stage, halfway under a staircase. Little things bothered me. Why is Sinéad Matthews, playing an heiress whose discovery of a friend's death in a concentration camp marks the play's emotional climax, landed with a handbag she never puts down in even the most upsetting scenes? Why, though the action takes place over more than a month, does no one ever change their clothes? I suppose it is symbolic: they are trapped in a hell of their own making. But it strips Ackland's meandering text of any basic reality.

In the same way the ceaseless movement seems to maroon actors who are normally excellent, to pinion them in one aspect of their character, without ever allowing them to develop or to make us care about them. Perhaps that is deliberate too, but it makes for a curiously chilly evening. Edwards has his moments as the self-pitying novelist, but the characters who emerge best are Patricia England's batty Julia, lost in her own world, and Martins Imhangbe's straight-up GI Sam Mitchum, who eventually seeks enlightenment in India.

In the way of the play, that decision is neither prepared for nor explained. On this showing, it is so far from a masterpiece that it is best left as a brave curiosity in the drawer marked history.