Sutton Arts Theatre bring the chaos and frenzied escapism of post-war Soho to life in a fine production of Rodney Ackland’s controversial play ‘Absolute Hell’, directed by Emily Armstrong. Set entirely in La Vie en Rose, a dimly lit private members drinking club, it is one of those plays in which nothing much seems to happen, but everything does. The large cast successfully create a rich tapestry of humanity in all its varied pain, glory and disorder. Spending time in the company of these lost souls offers an engaging and satisfying insight into some of the complex realities of London life in 1945. Blitz nostalgia it most certainly is not.
The play was condemned as a ‘libel on the British people’ by critics reviewing it in its original incarnation as ‘The Pink Room’ in 1952. Ackland was so affected by accusations that the work was ‘unsuitable’ and ‘outrageous’ (one of the central characters is a drunken homosexual writer) that he wrote very little for the following four decades. Thankfully he did revisit the play and a revised version, under the new title ‘Absolute Hell’, followed the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s licensing and censorship functions in 1968. Now regarded as a twentieth-century classic, it is exactly the kind of challenging and provocative work local theatres should be staging.
Mark Nattrass’ set design, which includes a fully stocked bar on stage, brings the decaying members club effectively to life and has an appropriately cramped and mildly claustrophobic feel. As the whisky and gin flow a heady party atmosphere slowly develops but it’s an uncomfortable one: the primary objective for most of the bohemian types here seems to be to get as drunk as possible. Alcohol offers an escape and as the action shifts into the small hours drunkenness takes over and cracks begin to appear, in the characters as well as the building itself.
Presiding over the turmoil is club owner Christine, a broken mother-hen figure played with perfectly judged ‘devil-may-care’ abandon by Liz Berriman in a commanding performance. Underneath her whisky-fuelled claims that she loves her members lurks a darkness, exposed most effectively when the character risks being alone. Club regular and serious drinker Hugh is a penniless and gay failed writer, played with affability and desperation-tinged charm by Dexter Whitehead in a nuanced and moving performance. Full of despair and longing, his relationship with lover Nigel (a strong performance by Alan Lowe) is strained, reminding the audience that in 1945 the law criminalised homosexuality.
In a play which weaves together the lives of twenty speaking characters, the whole cast combine to make sense of what could be a sprawling and unwieldy narrative: the storytelling in this production is strong. There are many people to get to know but what Ackland’s writing does so powerfully is highlight the struggles which variously unite and divide them. Standout performances include Patrick Richmond-Ward as film director Maurice, Jayne Lunn as glamorous hedonist Elizabeth and Dorothy Goodwin as delightfully dotty older club member Julia. Ian Cornock’s performance as Cyril, beleaguered assistant to Maurice, is perfectly judged camp. Across the wide spectrum of characters, what dominates in this impressive production is a palpable and collective sense of fear about the future and an urgent need for escapism. Emerging from the rubble and turmoil of war will not be easy.
A booze-fuelled theatrical treat which deserves to be widely supported and seen.
‘Absolute Hell’ is playing at Sutton Arts Theatre until Saturday 21st September 2019