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Absolute Hell at the National Theatre, London – review round-up

Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Rodney Ackland’s The Pink Room was smashed to smithereens by critics when it premiered in 1952, effectively stopping Ackland’s successful playwriting career dead. He started fiddling with it again in the 1980s, and it triumphantly reappeared – under the new title Absolute Hell – at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre in 1988.

Ackland died three years later in 1991, and four years after that, Absolute Hell was revived again at the National by Anthony Page, in a production starring Judi Dench, who had also appeared in a BBC Television version broadcast in 1991. Now, Ackland’s play is back on the South Bank, in the Lyttelton until May 23.

It’s revived this time by Young Vic associate and sometime provocateur Joe Hill-Gibbins. He’s staged Shakespeare in mud baths and on piles of plastic sex dolls at the Young Vic, but his only National directing credit to date was his bold staging Marlowe’s Edward II in 2013, a production loved by some and hated by others.

But what will Hill-Gibbins do to Ackland’s revitalised writing? Will the critics reward his return to the National with warmer reviews? Will they shower Absolute Hell with praise like it’s 1988, or tear it to pieces like it’s 1952?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews

Absolute Hell – Broken Britain

Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Ackland’s play is set in a Soho drinking den in 1945, in between VE Day and Labour’s unlikely general election win, its narrative focusing on a mixed bag of desperate down-and-outs. The critics hated its harsh vision of Britain in its original version – Binkie Beaumont called it “a libel on the British people” – but what do they make of it now? Is it worth reviving now its shock value has dissipated?

“It continues to fascinate,” contends Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★). “Ackland describes with pinpoint accuracy a metropolitan sub-world: the camp movie director, the Austrian black marketeer and his faithless doxy, and the GI seeking to get laid all seem drawn from life. But Ackland also wants us to see the club, which falls apart as Labour triumphs, as a metaphor for a reality-evading England.”

“I suspect the play has been revived now to warn us that we too are dodging the dangers of reality, but Ackland’s play emerges more as an enjoyable slice of social history than as a timeless myth,” he concludes.

“Ackland’s punkish snarling is pitted against a nation cheering the results of the 1945 election,” adds Susannah Clapp (Observer, ★★). “The bitching and banter and fractured conversations – the sense that everyone is hanging on or slipping away, punching against the dark with drink – all this is worth hearing.”

“It’s a lot of fun to watch,” says Holly Williams (Independent, ★★★). “Still, the play is a challenge: three hours long, and nothing really happens. Even as Labour promise change (a huge campaign poster looms), Ackland’s play insists on circular lack of progress, whether that’s recurring jokes or destructive traits. This lot can’t quit drink, can’t quit the club, can’t quit each other.”

Some critics think that Absolute Hell is well worth its punishing three-hour run-time, Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★) praising its “unjudgemental yet unyielding gaze” and Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★) labelling it “a bold and ambitious play, fascinating and provocative, a kind of living Hogarth portrait of a Blitz-ravaged London living hard on treble whiskies and rationed eggs and desperately trying to blot out the world and the war.”

Others, though, find Absolute Hell, well, absolute hell. “This tragi-comedy seems a sprawling mess, shooting in all directions for a very long time,” writes Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★), while Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★) reckons it “feels like a succession of well-observed conversations, which don’t coalesce into something more nourishing” and Ann Treneman (Times, ★★) calls it “a slow-burn that rarely flickers into life”.

“After three sometimes dragging hours, I emerged no less persuaded of Absolute Hell’s historic significance but more aware of its theatrical fragility,” says Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★). “If it’s over-exposed, over-protracted and over-played it can look sprawling to the point of self-indulgent.”

“In the absence of anything that could be enjoyed as plot, there is an accumulation of incidents that the generous will call Chekohovian, but the more disenchanted will admit are pretty pointless,” writes Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★★). “There is a repetitiveness about the dialogues and the action that makes a point about the senselessness of drunken escapism, then makes the same point again. And again. And again.”

“Ackland’s play is a strange and lengthy affair that mixes tender empathy and a painterly eye for the mania of life during wartime with some jarringly cruel farcical moments,” concludes Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★). “I’m not sure whether it’s an absolute stone-cold classic as a drama, but as a historical document of a swirling nocturnal London – now very long gone – it feels vital.”
“And there is more to it than that: it has something more transcendent to say about the allure of nightlife, the strange bedfellows it breeds, the means by which it exists to alleviate loneliness as much as to facilitate joy.”

Absolute Hell – Seedy Soho

Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Ackland’s patchy play only convinces a handful of critics, then, leaving the rest of them uncertain as to whether it’s the overlooked classic it’s sold as. What about Hill-Gibbins’ direction, though? Are the critics entranced by his seedy Soho?

“As directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, the play feels like a live action Robert Altman film,” describes Tripney. “It’s a relatively restrained production for the director. There are no sex dolls or jelly-lobbing, but he delights in this sexually messy world. Fifi, a local lady of the night, patrols the stage constantly and there are frequent eruptions of drunken dancing, not to mention a fevered sequence in which the cast cavorts in animal masks.”

“In an attempt to boost the play’s significance, Hill-Gibbins gives it the full expressionist works,” comments Billington. “But, while the staging is superbly orchestrated, it has an epic quality Ackland’s play doesn’t wholly justify.”

“What should be swift and cutting is here simply slow,” concurs Clapp. “A play that should be a challenge looks marmoreal. And marmoreal is the opposite of what makes theatre interesting.”
“Framing Ackland’s work as a lavish epic also shows up its limitations,” says Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★). “It provides welcome boosts of energy, but swallows up some of the intimate scenes, making them feel remote.”

Most critics agree, Michael Arditti (Express, ★★) calling Hill-Gibbins production “disastrously misconceived” and claiming it “exposes the verbosity, crudity and misogyny of Ackland’s script”, Treneman complaining that “ennui is everywhere”, and Crompton bemoaning a “basic lack of stagecraft”.

“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,” continues Crompton. “Little things bothered me. “

Hill-Gibbins does have his fans, though. Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★) calls his production “captivatingly detailed”, Hitchings finds it “expertly choreographed” with “moments of startling savagery and topical zest”, and Lukowski hails it as “tenderly atmospheric” and “the grandest and most moving work of his career”.

Absolute Hell – Desperate Drinkers

Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Critics are as divided about the production as they are over the play, then, some finding it tedious and ill-conceived, others revelling in its slow-burn seediness. Are they similarly split over the cast? What do they make of the 27-strong ensemble?

“There are some great performances,” says Nick Wells (Radio Times, ★★★★). “Kate Fleetwood excels as Christine, the owner of the bar, whose underlying emptiness drives her need for company. Charles Edwards exudes a manic anxiety that is both funny and tragic as Hugh, a critically panned writer chasing respect while his life is falling apart.”

“The acting is cracking,” chimes Tripney. “Edwards portrays Hugh with his usual empathy and delicacy and gets to deliver the most audience-pleasing line of the night: “What has a Tory government ever done for writers and artists?

“Fleetwood is incredibly poignant as the desperately lonely Christine, so terrified of being alone with her thoughts that she clings to every man in a uniform that enters.”

Not everyone agrees – Arditti thinks the characters are “grossly exaggerated” and “hysterical” and Sierz thinks they are “overwhelmed by the production” – but most do, Fleetwood and Edwards garnering the lion’s share of the praise.

“Both Fleetwood and Edwards are superb as desperately lonely souls trying to lose themselves in the boozy bustle of the club,” writes Lukowski. “They’re kindred spirits, albeit with key differences: she seems to run purely on instinct, with her desperate desire for companionship manifesting itself as an unselfconscious frenzy of neediness. He, on the other hand, is cursed to see exactly what he is: a washed-up nobody, hiding from the promise of his past.”

“Edwards also captures perfectly the desperate neediness of an overgrown mother’s boy looking for emotional security,” adds Billington. “Everything about him is right, from the ill-knotted tie to the rumpled cardigan.”

“Kate Fleetwood lends the hostess the right air of public solitude and there is strong support from Jonathan Slinger as the brutal movie-maker, Danny Webb as the anxious Austrian and Sinead Matthews as his partner, who professes leftwing leanings but is too befuddled to vote.”

Absolute Hell – Is it any good?

Charles Edwards and Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Charles Edwards and Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It’s thoroughly divisive, this one. Some critics think Ackland’s portrait of Britain is both touching and timely, while others think its too long and too sprawling. Similarly with Hill-Gibbins’ production: some reviews praise his phantasmagorical evocation of a smoky, seamy Soho club, others think he gets it all wrong, affording the play far more grandiose gravitas than it deserves.

There’s general agreement that the show boasts an excellent ensemble, but with ratings spread evenly between two, three and four stars, this is neither smash-hit nor faltering flop. It’s not absolute hell, but its not exactly heaven either.

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