Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 16 June 2018
Rodney Ackland’s great disappointment, his ill-timed 1952 play, The Pink Room, is given another chance at the National Theatre with its reworked and renamed production called Absolute Hell. The National first staged the piece in 1987 and now it is back, the vast Lyttelton stage transformed into a tawdry Soho drinking den where the lost, lonely and down on their luck, escape reality with a night’s hard partying.
Joe Hill-Gibbins’ ambitious epic involves a huge cast, most of whom stagger about making whoopee in the background. Centre stage, or at least tottering near the front, is Charles Edwards’ failed, dissolute writer, Hugh Marriner, who cadges free Scotch and fags off other members. His glamorous hostess, club owner Chrissie (Kate Fleetwood) is so desperate and lonely that she embarrasses herself with visiting servicemen who are looking for booze and sex.
It’s like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Lost souls drowning in a sea of hopelessness and despair, downing triple whiskies and forgetting, if for a few short hours, their disappointing, pointless lives. I couldn’t get Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, the foundation of the musical, Cabaret, out of my mind when watching this overlong, leaden and depressing saga.
Where he recorded the last months of Weimar Germany with its seedy clubs and faded decadence in pre-war Berlin, so Ackland picks up the story a few years after the war in London. Sally Bowles has become Elizabeth Collier (Sinead Matthews), dahling, whose hedonism and flirtatiousness knows no bounds. She declares her intentions to vote in the general election but becomes sidetracked by champagne and a lusty RAF officer. And her relationship with a concentration camp victim is never fully explored.
Aspiring writer, Cliff Bradshaw, is now Marriner, whose writer’s block has resulted in him prostituting himself with a heinous movie producer in a bid to earn a few pounds from a screenplay.
Edwards is the heart and dying soul of this overblown tale, which, I’m sorry to say, quickly bored me. You could cut 40 minutes out of its three-hour length (yes three hours) and still tell the story.
Fifi (Rachel Dale with a thankless role,) the Soho tart, spends the entire production, walking around the perimeter of the huge, soulless set, looking for business. You could set your watch by her nightly patrols.
Inside the club Fleetwood’s Christine hands out free drinks by the gallon and allows anyone to help behind the bar. God knows how she makes a profit.
What lifts the story is the beautifully well observed and colourfully drawn characters who bring to life the grim underbelly of London’s most notorious district.
But you never get to learn much about them. Ackland just offers tantalising glimpses of their sad, pathetic lives, and it isn’t pretty.
I particularly liked barking mad Julia, (Patricia England) a charming old dear who seeks companionship and sanctuary in the club, flitting and prancing about the place in her party frock, constantly confused and befuddled.
It could be a gin-soaked brain, more likely dementia, but the hilarious and confusing conversations she has with Hugh are a riot.
And the wonderfuly spoken, gentrified guest, Lettice Willis, known to everyone as The Treacle Queen, makes a strong impact.
Liza Sadovy is surely channelling the scandalous Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll with her cut glass vowels and penchant for gin and sleeze, cruising around the club in an impossibly tight skirt.
Joanna David sparkles as Hugh’s over-protective mummy who fusses around him, still treating him as a child.
And Ackland bites back against the critics who savaged his original play with the awful RB Monody, an elderly, tweed-wearing, lesbian critic who gets her comeuppance after heartless reviews destroyed Marriner’s career.
The performances of the entire cast are exceptional – Edwards and Fleetwood, in particular, are superb as they take Hugh and Chrissie down into their own personal hells – but they can’t save the production from sinking under the weight of expectation.
Ackland misjudged the upbeat mood of the country when this provocative piece first aired and it sank like a lead weight, taking his career down with it.
More than 60 years later the controversy surrounding the original story now seems tame but I was still left wondering what was the point of the revival.
The expansive set doen’t offer the intimacy of a London nightclub but, at least, it fills the cavernous stage.
And there is too much fuss going on with the company who rush about without any clear purpose, seemingly to just make the place look busy.
The sexuality of the members is overt and can be flaunted in the privacy of the club.
Hugh is openly gay and suffering problems with his live-in lover, Nigel, while Jonathan Slinger is chilling as Maurice, the cruel, sadistic film producer who loves humiliating his male secretary, the camp Cyril.
As a tableau of Soho life, circa 1950ish, it is a curiosity, but it would be far more engaging if considerably abridged. Amazingly it was running at 3hrs 40 minutes and two intervals in previews but Hill-Gibbins still needs to look again at its length.