Absolute Hell at the National Theatre
It’s sort of disheartening to see a play so thoroughly live up to the punnability of its title. But there’s no way around it: Absolute Hell is absolute tedium.
In the crumbling majesty of member’s club La Vie en Rose, Soho’s social outcasts revel in the glow of victory in Europe, keen to keep at bay the horror camps of Germany and the still-fresh scars of conflict. Yet, as the reality of the outside world begins to pierce the walls of the establishment, the party starts to turn sour for those left cold by the swell of post-war optimism.
Though there’s a lot of good work in the ensemble – especially from Jonathan Slinger, who is so hammy as the sneering Maurice that he basically comes with egg and chips – the drama doesn’t generate enough material to justify such a large cast of characters (and – by extension – bloated running time). This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if Joe Hill-Gibbins had managed to create a genuinely raucous tone when the club is drinking away the wee hours. The director does have a nice way of pouring his performers about the stage like whisky swilled in a glass, but those party scenes never quite ignite in the way they need to for the loneliness of the final half hour to truly take hold.
What’s a shame is that in amidst all the baggage there’s a really fantastic performance from Charles Edwards. As the struggling author Hugh Marriner, the actor manages to balance a boyish dishevelment with a sense of tired desperation. He is constantly darting around the stage, flop sweating everywhere as he tries to scrounge help from his devilish compatriots. Edwards is also gifted the richest story thread: the dissolution of his relationship with long-term partner Nigel, a man made uncomfortable by the club’s queerness and high camp – well, in theory; in practice the production’s Soho is pretty short on both.
Effectively a creaky, intermittently bleak 1940s version of Cheers, Rodney Ackland’s drama is one of those plays that suffers from the story of its inception. What was once controversial and subversive when it was first put on as The Pink Room in 1952 – when one easily offended hack even labelled it “a libel on the British people” – is now incredibly tired, with Hill-Gibbins’s production doing little to make Absolute Hell feel like anything more than a period-piece curiosity.
Photo: Johan Persson
Absolute Hell is at the National Theatre from 18th April until 23rd May 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.