Absolute Hell: rich drama reviving lascivious Soho

Kate Fleetwood. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

In the current global scenario of fake news and fictional worlds created through the digital web, it is in a way reassuring to see how different forms of escapism have always been strongly sought after, in the past as in the present. Absolute Hell, now at the National Theatre directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, is an incredibly concerted window into the sordid area of Soho, as it was in the last days of the Second World War.

First offered to the bourgeoise London audience under the title of Pink Room in 1952, the play was a complete fiasco, denounced as 'a libel on the British people', due to the debauched lives put on the stage.

Rodney Ackland, the author behind it, waited more than thirty years before putting his hands on the script again. The revised version, now under the name of Absolute Hell, saw the light at the Orange Tree Theatre in 1988 and was this time received so positively to inspire the BBC for a television adaptation. The revival was brought also to the National Theatre in 1995, starring Judi Dench.

For how much it could have been hated at the time for its open expressionism, the piece today looks less incisive that it was, used as we are to lustful displays and over consumption of spirits. It is definitely a significant drama, still vividly documenting the hidden life of one of the zestiest area of the city. But it is, most importantly, a remarkable artistic document of the talent and brilliance of playwright Ackland.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson
Christine Foskett (Kate Fleetwood) is the cheerful owner of La Vie en Rose, a nightclub still standing, despite the warning of the unsafe building, at the heart of Soho. Come the bombs, come the war, the place has never closed, allowing its members and friends to gather and give free rein to their lewd desires.

The range of characters on display is broad. From the silent and ghostly prostitute, to the absent-minded gleeful Julia Shillitoe (Patricia England). From the outspoken producer Maurice Hussey (Jonathan Slinger), to the pious and kind Mrs Marriner (Joanna David).

Among them, few leading figures move the plot. Hugh Marriner (Charles Edwards) struggle to keep up with his precarious writing career and a long-standing relationship with Nigel (Prasanna Puwanarajah). While Christine continuously seeks for male attention, the charming Elizabeth Collier (Sinéad Matthews) attracts all the good-looking uniforms coming and going to the club. She is, though, the only one directly contacted by the brutality of the miseries happening in Europe, when a message from a friend in one of the German concentration camps arrive. Her ensuing stony reaction to the sad news, though, is the shunning response of that crowd to the raging outside world.

The text aims big, featuring, as mentioned, around twenty full unrestrained characters and the extravagant life of one of the most libidinous districts of the capital. It is a piece brilliantly structured on the intersecting and prodding of the members and guests of the nightclub, highlighting the detached world – morally and emotionally – of Soho.

Charles Edwards. Photo Credit: Johan Persson
The costumes and the set design enormously contribute to make the production as much engaging and telling as the actors. Although the further spaces in depth and height of the stage are out of the audience’s focus, they are invaluable rooms for the performers to run and hide as smoothly as possible.

The lengthy running time allows the development of the main stories, interspersed with colourful sketches. However, what would have represented vivid scandalous sequences, loose quite a bit of their strength today, promoting to ask whether few cuts here and there would have benefited the whole.

In all his hesitation and doubts, Charles Edwards gives a brilliant performance, sustaining mostly all the others. Sinéad Matthews is another great star of this production, moving boldly in her buoyant character.

Although the show may not live up to all the expectations for a banging night, Absolute Hell is a striking piece matching high quality of production and a memorable script.

Dates: 18 April - 23 May 2018
Venue: National Theatre