'Absolute Hell' at the National Theatre: Historic artifact of a rowdy postwar time

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The cast of "Absolute Hell," through June 19 at the Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre, London.

A play with a checkered past, Absolute Hell by Rodney Ackland was first a flop in 1952 when it was titled The Pink Room. It scandalized both the public and the critics (“A libel on the British people”). And then it was a hit in the 1990s. Now it’s an enormous revival: 3 hours long with a cast of 40, corralled by director Joe Hill-Gibbons.

It’s a portrait of decadent life right after World War Two, in London’s private clubs, where gay artists mingled with the aristocracy and prostitutes and American soldiers, and everybody was drunk all the time.  Think Cabaret without the music and without the dark, terrifying edge.  Absolute Hell struck me as more a historical artifact rather than a cautionary tale: The debauched and louche life portrayed is far less dangerous and tragic than today’s drug-infested version, partly because none of these people is young and partly because their self-harm is far less violent.

Several stories run through the action. Christine (Kate Fleetwood) is the owner of the club called “La Vie en Rose,” and she is generous to a fault —most shockingly when a dozen GIs in animal masks show up after a masquerade party, and invites a group rape. The failed writer, Hugh Mariner (Charles Edwards), a gay mama’s boy who never recovered from a bad review, is desperate and rumpled and tyrannized by the cruel, rich filmmaker (Jonathan Slinger).  Elizabeth (Sinead Matthews) is another representative of this dissolute club; when an English officer who has seen the “horror camps” gives her a loving message from an old friend who died at Ravensbrück, she waves him away with, “Don’t upset me.”

The huge, three-story set designed by Lizzie Clachan is terrific, as is the lighting designed by Jon Clark as the rose fades to black.


Absolute Hell, through June 16, Lyttleton Theatre at the National Theatre, London.