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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Absolute Hell
Lyttelton Theatre  Spring-Summer 2018

This is a play about a large group of almost uniformly unattractive characters, whose playwright makes little attempt to have us like, sympathise with or even care about them. Spending three hours in their company can be a pretty heavy slog. 

Rodney Ackland is one of the playwrights of the Terrence Rattigan generation who were swept aside in the theatrical revolution of the 1950s, not to be rediscovered until the 1990s, when this play, a rewrite of a 1940s failure, attracted some attention. 

Absolute Hell is set in a semi-legal Soho drinking club in 1945, where losers and wannabes on the fringes of society gather to socialise, backbite, start and end affairs, and get drunk.

Regulars include a writer who never writes, a painter who never paints, a pair of Austrian refugees, a minor film director, occasional American GIs, and the like. A few are homosexual, which is not particularly relevant, and all are heavy drinkers, which is. 

With very few exceptions they are all either despicable or pathetic or both. Leading the pathetic group is the non-writing writer, so traumatised by a bad review years ago that he has a permanent writer's block and spends his time seeking sympathy and cadging drinks, cigarettes and small loans. 

Actor Charles Edwards invests the man with enough sad reality that we might be able to feel some sympathy for him if the character showed the slightest hint of self-awareness or capacity for growth. 

The other major character is the proprietress played by Kate Fleetwood. The woman is alternately cruel and kind to those who depend on her, as the whim strikes, and both playwright and actress take a little too long to humanise her by revealing that she is driven by an absolute terror of being alone. 

Not a whole lot happens in the play. The writer's lover breaks with him and then comes back. The movie guy entertains himself by offering hope of jobs to a couple of the others and then disappointing them. 

An American soldier joins the group for a while and then moves on. And the crumbling building that holds the club is condemned, leaving everyone either to find a new base or face emotional homelessness. 

There is some fascination to watching this dissolute group, but playwright Ackland makes the basic error of keeping us distanced from them. We are never invited into the play, almost never given anything we can connect to or anyone we can feel for. 

Need a playwright love his characters? Shakespeare cares enough about Iago to take us inside him and let us judge him. Ackland seems so distanced from this play (even though the writer character is at least partly his avatar) that he actively keeps us apart from it. 

This distance is reinforced by Joe Hill-Gibbins's direction. While the play is essentially realistic in mode, the director stages some moments, particularly involving the crowd of minor figures, in mannered and artificial modes that make you almost expect Brechtian whiteface. 

He's also not particularly good at moving the cast of 30 around, so the various entering, exiting and milling-about sequences look cluttered and random. 

The large cast and episodic structure leave little opportunity for other actors to score, but Jonathan Slinger as the campy, sadistic movie guy and Martins Imhangbe as a soldier with surprising interests in writing, photography and Indian mysticism get enough stagetime to give their characters some reality. 

You will believe, without reservation, that all these people and their world existed in that time and place. You will have great difficulty caring.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Absolute Hell - National Theatre 2018  
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