Rodney Ackland isn’t performed much anymore. The only other time I’ve seen one of his plays was the commercially quite successful Before The Party, revived in 1980 at the Apollo, directed by Tom Conti. But the story of how Absolute Hell came into being is one that intrigued me, so I decided it was one I had to see.
You may know, gentle reader, that I am very interested in the history of theatre censorship – indeed, in this 50th anniversary year since the abolition of stage censorship, I’ll be writing some blog posts in recognition of this significant event later this summer. Ackland wrote the original play, The Pink Room, in 1952, at a time when the Lord Chamberlain’s control over what was presented on stage was in its hey-day. It’s set in a seedy nightclub in Soho just as the Second World War was ending in Europe, and he wanted to portray all the human life and spirit that six years of war had brought out of people; and now that war was over, the people needed to find a new vent and expression to reflect that freedom.
Ackland wrote a play that he knew would get a licence – but by all accounts, it wasn’t the play he wanted to write. He wanted his characters people to use liberated, foul language. He wanted them to portray all the sexual freedom they wanted to enjoy, gay and straight, inside and outside relationships, legal and illegal. He wanted to show people getting drunk, not just gently tipsy for comedy purposes but rip-roaring, destructive drunk. You sense there was probably no physical boundaries that Ackland’s characters wouldn’t have breached.
But it was a flop – produced by his friend Terence Rattigan, who never spoke to him again. Disheartened by the experience, Ackland hardly wrote another thing; but after stage censorship was abolished, he revised the play so that it would reflect more what he had originally intended. And when he was an old man, and down on his uppers, the play was rediscovered by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and finally became a success. A perfect example of a play written at the wrong time, you could say.
The main problem with the play – and by the sound of it, it’s always been the case, right since 1952 – is that it is just too long. The original word from the National Theatre was to expect a three hour, forty minutes production, and, with the best will in the world, you can’t even concentrate on Hamlet for that long. Forty minutes have been shed between the early previews and opening night, which makes you a) feel extremely grateful and b) wonder what in the way of narrative has been left out; because the other downside to this play is that not a lot happens. That isn’t a strength, like in Beckett, where it would have been so disappointing for Godot to turn up and take everyone down the pub; in Absolute Hell you always feel like it’s going to break into a strong storyline, but it never ends up going down that path.
Spoiler alert in this paragraph! Four scenes – the opening and closing times at La Vie en Rose club over a period of five weeks – show manageress Christine slowly losing her hold over the club, from an opening position of running a place that everyone loved but didn’t make much money, to a final scene with a structurally unsafe building that has to be closed down. As La Vie en Rose slowly disintegrates, the fortunes of the Labour Party offices over the road thrive – in what might be seen as some rather heavy-handed symbolism; even their constant typing (which of course in real life they wouldn’t have been able to hear) provides an interruption and irritation to the activities of the club – and, indeed, to the audience. Over those five weeks, the hopes and dreams of La Vie en Rosers are shattered. Writer Hugh Marriner’s last ditch attempt to make a movie gets nowhere. His agent Maurice is exposed as a sham. His boyfriend Nigel leaves him for a woman. His mother finds out he’s not as successful as he pretended. His friend Elizabeth discovers a dear friend has died in the Holocaust. And of course, Christine loses her business and the building becomes derelict.
As a slice of life snapshot of the summer of 1945, it makes fascinating viewing – you really get a feel for that post-war energy and optimism, but only outside of the club. Inside the club, life is claustrophobic and going nowhere. There are black market etiquettes to observe, and self-important people to be pandered to. You sense that any fun they have on the inside is purely ephemeral. The future is on the outside.
There’s no denying it – this is an unpleasant play. Binkie Beaumont described it as “a libel on the British people” and I see his point. There are few positive characters in it, vastly outweighed by a variety of self-obsessed, cruel, pig-headed people whom you would run a mile to avoid. But who are we to say how any of us would be if we’d lived through the Second World War like these people? An experience like that would take a massive toll on society, and that, I think, is the prime aim of the play – to show fairly desperate lives and without any real judgment against them.
Unpleasant it may be, but there is a big upside; this is an extraordinarily good production, primarily because of several really superb performances that keep you hanging on to find out what happens to the characters. Charles Edwards inhabits the character of Hugh Marriner down to his tobacco-stained fingertips. The slight stoop he adopts, the rambling, wheedling manner of speech, the petulance, his general impotence and all his other characteristics are all perfectly captured as he wastes his way through life. It’s an incredible performance. Kate Fleetwood is also brilliant as Christine who manages the club, with a perpetual twinkle in her eye at the sight of any remotely desirable man; she has all the attributes of a tough businesswoman apart from the important one of keeping an eye on the till. Welcoming and indeed almost grovelling to those in influence, whilst dismissing anyone who doesn’t fit her own opinion of a good customer, this is another excellent performance.
Jonathan Slinger gives a superb performance as the arrogant agent Maurice, steeped in his own self-esteem to the belittling of anyone who gets in his way; Joanne David is delightfully charming as the easily duped and surprisingly refined Mrs Marriner; Martins Imhangbe conveys Sam’s desire to learn and expand his horizons in a terrifically enthusiastic performance; Jenny Galloway invests the critic R B Monody with a wonderfully huffy self-importance; and John Sackville gives a tremendous performance of sheer stiff upper lip as Douglas Eden. But it’s a marvellous ensemble cast of thirty-plus who throw everything they have at making these characters come alive. If it hadn’t been so superbly performed, it would have felt like a much, much longer show. An interesting period piece; but, seen once, you’d never want to see it again.
Production photos by Johan Persson