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‘Absolute Hell’ review

  • Theatre, Comedy
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Grandiose revival for Roddy Ackland's provocative study of ‘40s Soho nightlife

Playwright Rodney Ackland’s depiction of vibrant, seedy, tragic Soho at the fag end of WW2 effectively ended the playwright’s career when it premiered in 1952 under its original title, ‘The Pink Room’. Society wasn’t up for its unflinching vision of queer, queasy London. By 1988, when Ackland rewrote it into ‘Absolute Hell’, the author was dying of leukaemia, and never saw it make the leap to the National Theatre in 1995, when Judi Dench starred.

Almost quarter of a century on and director-slash-provocateur Joe Hill-Gibbins has dusted Ackland’s play off for a no-expense-spared, fantasy production in the Lyttelton that inches it closer to the British canon. 

You can tell it’s a project close to the director’s heart because his usual extreme irreverence is largely shelved. There are a few ostentatious flourishes: a sex worker who steadily paces the stage in a slow, trance-like loop; an actor purely employed to clack at a typewriter on a distant upper level of Lizzie Clachan’s vaulting set; a phantasmagorical tableau of masked, horny GIs at the interval.

But for the most part, Hill-Gibbins’s more grandiose impulses are given free rein by the sheer scale of the thing: with a huge ensemble, him and movement director Jenny Ogilvie conjure the ebb and flow of the rude, despairing life that inhabits Soho joint La Vie En Rose, which has a semi-respectable restaurant upstairs and a fairly outrageous drinking den in the basement. As the play starts we see the building flicker into life as proprietor Christine (Kate Fleetwood) opens up early for a brawny young GI she’s hoping might keep her company; soon the place is full of sprawling life, from sensitive, gay failed writer Hugh (Charles Edwards) to proper oddballs like Eileen Walsh’s Madge, an obsessive advocate for the belief that Jesus was born on Boxing Day.

In a sense, there’s not much plot, or rather there are myriad tiny ones that swoop and swirl around the twin vortices of Christine and Hugh. Both Fleetwood and Edwards are superb as desperately lonely souls trying to lose themselves in the boozy bustle of the club. 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.

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. 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. And this is all articulated beautifully in Hill-Gibbins’s tenderly atmospheric production, the grandest and most moving work of his career.
Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£15-£67. Runs 3hr 10min
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