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FringeReview UK 2018

Absolute Hell

National Theatre, London

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton


Low Down

Joe Hill-Gibbins directs this revival, populating Lizzie Clachan’s cavernous, inventively counter-intuitive khaki set, lit with an atmospheric – certainly tenebrous – wartime gloom by Jon Clark. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes from tweed to uniform, Paul Arditti’s sound and Harvey Brough’s musical direction of numbers and Jenny Ogilvie’s movement in particular are key to this conga-line of frenetic activity that never flags till the members have virtually left.


There’s not much of The Pink Room – its original title – left of Rodney Ackland‘s Absolute Hell in Lizzie Clachan’s cavernous, inventively counter-intuitive khaki set, lit with a tenebrous wartime gloom by Jon Clark. The lights have just gone back on over Europe. The Soho club La Vie en Rose totters through its final weeks still inhabited by liberated bohos and a displaced veneer of genteel older ladies, one of these the mother of one of them. Fifi the prostitute stalks past in a severe robotic rectangle, scandalously paying no income tax as Cook says. The set’s replete with a central constructivist stairwell to an almost invisible dining room upstairs, and opposite, clacking Labour typists at Party HQ, latterly revellers from the 1945 election.


Comfy foregrounded chairs do much service, with an old gramophone; then there’s the drunken members in this twenty-nine strong cast (thirty-one are listed) of Soho refugees boozing into sex and partying escapes from loneliness. Shadows of post-war crack-down loom. The sexual fluidity celebrated here’s on notice; a real one emerges at the end: ‘Danger’. Other refugees emerge only later in a distance of black and white. But there’s a huddle of pink-shaded lamps, finally closing together round a cluster of bottles as the dying embers of a club – which begins to fall round proprietor Christine Foskett’s ears. And she’s screaming.


This is far more than an essential document. Ackland’s prolific career virtually ended and began again with this play. This was after The Pink Room’s flop in 1952, with a few lighter pieces in between: Ackland’s rewrote and revised it as Absolute Hell in 1987 for the Orange Tree, where it triumphed the next year. The theatre had been stunned in 1984 by his 1941 The Dark River, when touting for ‘local Richmond talent’. Ackland was living penniless nearby.


As the Almeida’s 2013 staging of Ackland’s Before the Party proved, Ackland doesn’t just revise. His adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s story introduces new characters in the first act, where the original ended. Ackland updates (to 1949), extending the narrative to a new ending. Absolute Hell’s similarly amplified. The 1988 production was edited with Ackland on hand. Still, the current production starts with a 144-page, 1990 text. Something has to give.


Joe Hill-Gibbins, associated with more interventionist readings, directs this with pace and aplomb – and dead straight. Even the end of Act One where revellers burst in with animal masks out of what seems a drunken Richard Dadd nightmare has its roots in the Orange Tree’s needing to double actors. The result’s a thrilling expressionist ramp-up born of necessity. Another has the initial running time trimmed from three hours forty minutes in previews to just three hours, partly managed by trimming ten minutes off the second interval. It helps compress the second and third acts where the reveals undercut the picaresque revelling of Act One, which never flags, down to the invited ravishments and plush pink curtain.


Kate Fleetwood is rarely offstage as Christine Foskett, reprising the role Judi Dench took twice. Always in the same red dress, occasionally frisking it half-off but perpetually in motion, she nails a needy loneliness, part sexually ravenous but mostly an incapacity to be alone. She wheedles, dominates, roars out disturbers of her peace and pleads with even a brief acquaintance to have sex with her in the kitchen.


The trappings of intimacy, even eviscerated, seem all that can be asked in a world stumbling out of survival mode – when others are making a stab at living. Fleetwood slowly escalates her desperation and language to an arc snapped like a broken bridge. Christine Foskett speaks for those all-to-quickly silenced discontents picking through the rubble of 1945 – even if Ackland’s orchestration is occasionally so intricate – in this editing – they drown each other out.


Apart from Fiz Marcus’ Cook Christine mainly relies on Stephanie Jacob’s put-upon Doris, and more personally Charles Edwards’ wrung-out writer Hugh Marriner, whose imminent break up with Nigel (a latterly eloquent even tender Prasanna Puwanrajah) underpins the desolation of losing his talent to drink. Later it emerges a young writer reveres him but he fails to read that writer’s manuscript. Edwards’ palpable despair soft-shuffles itself in polite begging, a need to settle Nigel’s dress-design debts and generosity (he gives half of his bummed two pounds to the drunken painter Michael Crowley). Latterly he and Christine consider an arrangement. If Nigel can consider a heterosexual cover, why not? It’s never as simple as that in Ackland’s refusal to tie up neat ends.


Hugh’s bête noir is Jenny Galloway’s R B Monody cerise wigged and tweeds suited with Anita Reynolds’ ever-faithful can-do Bill in anxious attendance over her heart. She’s broken Hugh’s as a writer he claims – Ackland added this scene in 1987, still smarting from his own flop. Ackland’s capacity to collide two unconnected storylines – Monody’s and Crowley’s for example – is what prevents the later acts from excessive sprawl.


Centripetally from Hugh’s own troubles spiral Jonathan Slinger’s wonderfully vicious film director Maurice Hussey, a kind of gay Harvey Weinstein, abusive to his underlings (he even makes Hugh sexually indebted to him) and getting them to read scripts he owns and then enjoys paying cheerfully for (less than a weeks wages of what he offers to a potential tar, that same aspiring writer). Slinger almost steals the show, but Edwards’ appalled face centres him and the action even when Crowley comes on with something alarming (again Lloyd Hutchinson’s wild performance throughout explodes each scene he rushes into – his subversion of Thomas Hood’s ‘I remember I remember is a throwaway rhinestone).


The other couple Ackland pushes into a triangle are Sinéad Matthews’ raspingly winning yet eloquent hedonist Elizabeth Collier (people here have opinions on Proust and a wide vocabulary). Matthews weaponizes a youthful heedlessness to Fleetwood’s fears: their rivalry and stand-offs pepper each major scene with its own tension. Elizabeth’s Austrian aged beau Danny Webb’s Siegfried Shrager, all round racketeer and benign wise man, indeed in a paradoxical way one of the few moral centre of the play.


Another is Elizabeth’s new lover Sam Mitchum that aspiring writer and reluctant film actor whom Martins Imhangbe invests with dignity; a writer’s idealism that finally shifts in an unexpected direction. Ironically, John Sackville’s Douglas Eden is an officer passing through to tell Elizabeth her friend has survived the concentration camp, but…. She doesn’t want to hear, and despite intentions never votes on July 9th, Election Day. Ackland makes an enormous amount of photographs, both Douglas’s and Sam’s. And Sam makes a surprising decision based on this new encounter. Subtly we’re on notice that England is no longer the land of brief wartime permissions. Freedom’s shipping out.


Despite appearances idealism’s a scum edging at this immortal bouillon of desires. A fakir here, and Nigel’s decision to work with displaced persons in Germany. And though it’s not apparent in the bleakness, moments of redemption stretch beyond the play, at least temporary and even farther afield, in the decisions some make with attempts to help those they’re leaving – forever or not is never decided – to a better life.


Minor characters sketch a vivid two-dimensioned life, even where (now) slightly truncated. Liza Sadovy as the treacle Queen gleefully damning all who vote Labour, Eileen Walsh’s muscular Belfast Made, damning all who don’t believe Jesus was born on Boxing Day as revealed to her (take a leaflet) who shows surprising aplomb as a removals expert. Joanna David’s book-missing Mrs Mariner seems as cunningly blind to her son’s sexuality as Mrs Rattigan. Patricia England’s hazily demented Julia Shillitoe provides exquisitely orchestrated confusions jumbling books and people together. It’s deliciously mischievous with outings: character Siegfried Shrager with Siegfried Sassoon and Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Walter de La Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget, David Garnett’s Lady into Fox.


It’s a production shrewdly squeezing naturalism through expressionist tumble glasses. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes from loud tweed to shabby mufti to uniform to a hooker’s black market haut couture vividly cuts each personae. Paul Arditti’s sound and Harvey Brough’s musical direction of numbers and Jenny Ogilvie’s movement in particular are key to this conga-line of frenetic activity that never flags till the members have virtually left. It’s a feat worth celebrating because never till there’s less than three people on stage does the energy or attention drop.


Just once we miss the point. Sam’s introduced breezily as a Canadian Squadron Leader though he’s wearing an aircraftsman’s uniform, so you think it’s a joke. His later transferring to Beaufighters means he’d have to be a RCAF sergeant at least.


There’s certainly a danger of sprawl, and a slight drop in energy as the tableaux empties in the third act on Election result night (July 26th). But this can’t be seen as anything less than a triumph of Ackland’s skein of characters caricatures and remarkable vision – which Hill-Gibbins consummately brings off. There may be a beat of pathos missing, but it’s still there. We’re not used to this scale, perhaps, from this period either. It’ll take some time to settle, needs careful selection and can’t be essayed too often with such a cast. But it is treasurable.