Absolute Hell review at National Theatre, London – ‘superbly acted portrait of wartime Soho’

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

Originally titled The Pink Room, Rodney Ackland’s 1952 play is set in a Soho drinking pit in the dying days of the Second World War. Its bleak, booze-soaked portrait of life did not find favour and it tanked.

Ackland reworked and retitled the play years later to make the characters’ sexuality – and promiscuity – more explicit and his work found an audience.

It’s 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.

Christine (Kate Fleetwood) is the proprietress of La Vie En Rose, an establishment not far from Piccadilly where members can dine on duck and get tiddly on gin and orange. Its regulars include Hugh Marriner (Charles Edwards), a writer who had some success in his youth but has fallen on hard times and spends his evenings cadging cigarettes and getting pickled.

The club is stuffed with exaggerated characters. Maurice Hussey (Jonathan Slinger) is a vile film producer who views everyone around him as a source of amusement. Michael (Lloyd Hutchinson) is a near-permanently inebriated artist. There’s party girl Elizabeth (Sinead Matthews), Austrian black-marketeer Siegfried (Danny Webb) and an imposing literary critic (Jenny Galloway). The club is also frequented by a succession of GIs, most of whom Christine tries to bed.

As directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, the play feels like a live action Robert Altman film. It’s a sprawling and multi-stranded play. Though Hill-Gibbins does love a grotesque – Slinger, in particular, revels in Maurice’s cackling awfulness – 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 (Rachel Dale), 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.

The acting is cracking. 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.

Designer Lizzie Clachan makes full use of the full height and width of the Lyttelton stage. Her multi-level set is peppered with pink lampshades but also full of dark nooks into which a person might hide themselves. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are delicious, particularly Fleetwood’s crimson dress.

One of the central themes of the play is the horrors of the Holocaust, the characters struggling to digest the inhumanity of it. An election is on the cards too. Change is coming. The world is precarious. Even the roof of the club is crumbling as a result of bomb damage. It’s easy to see why they would choose this boozy bubble.

It also contains an emotionally complex portrayal of a homosexual relationship, a flawed and messy union but one that is genuinely affectionate and, in the end, one of the few sources of hope in the dark.

A superb cast sinks its teeth into a portrait of seedy wartime Soho