Friday 27 April 2018

Absolute Hell, the Lyttelton Theatre, the National, South Bank, central London

Images from the National Theatre web site
Lavish and lengthy, Absolute Hell at the Lyttelton Theatre is a revival of a repetitive and downbeat play by Rodney Ackland originally performed in the 1950s and then revised to be more explicit in the 1980s. Set in a Soho club at the end of the Second World War, in the run-up to the Labour  victory in the 1945 General Election, the cast of 30 portrays characters from many walks of life who have one thing in common - they all want to escape reality. The club patrons, which include writers, artists, soldiers, pensioners, preachers, racketeers and aristos, obscure the outside world by indulging in alcohol, sex, literature, religion, music and nicotine. They are mostly a miserable lot, apart from an old lady with dementia.

A mute prostitute
Although there are a handful of funny scenes and the choreography can be top notch, this three hour production lacks a compelling plot and the story moves forward at a snail's pace. The play rotates through a carousel of cameos, often repeating the same gags over and over again. The multiple appearances by a bible bashing lay preacher banging on about Jesus being born on Boxing Day are particularly tedious. Throughout the performance, a mute prostitute walks round and round the stage like an robot, underlining the circular nature of the play.

Images from the National Theatre web site

The attentive will discern a few coherent narratives strands, such as fading writer Hugh's futile attempts to sell his script and his related financial difficulties, which contribute to a deteriorating relationship with his male partner.  Another half-formed storyline is the doomed efforts of Christine, the club's proprietress, to sustain the club's bonhomie, even as many of her patrons bicker over the food and hurl insults at each other. Later in the play a passing British solider attempts to relay a message from a now dead victim of the Nazi concentration camps to one of the club's patrons - Elizabeth, an apathetic socialite that lives with an Austrian racketeer and has sex with a Canadian serviceman. But all three sub-plots could be condensed into less than an hour.

A half-hearted fracas
Absolute Hell has a huge cast, a huge set and a huge number of (disjointed) episodes, punctuated by some group dancing, singalongs and set changes. Watching from the upper circle, the action feels remote and sometimes irrelevant - like a half-hearted fracas on the other side of a pub at closing time. Few of the actors and actresses really hold the stage. The exceptions include Charles Edwards as Hugh, Joanna David as Hugh's doting mother, who adeptly ignores her son's many character flaws, and Jonathan Slinger, as a spikey and spiteful film director dishing out doses of reality from time to time. 6/10