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Review: Absolute Hell, at Lyttelton Theatre

Set in a Soho drinking club between VE Day and Labour’s election victory in 1945, Rodney Ackland’s play centres on a novelist plagued by debt and a rocky relationship

04 May, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

Aaron Heffernan and Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell. Photo: Johan Persson

IN 1952 Rodney Ackland’s The Pink Room closed after just three weeks at the Lyric Hammersmith, mauled by the critics.

Three decades later, now free of theatre censorship, he reworked it as this play, set in a louche Soho drinking club between VE Day and Labour’s landslide election victory in 1945.

La Vie en Rose is run by lonely Christine (Kate Fleetwood) with a penchant for GIs who seem to have unlimited access to black-market whisky – and with her customers she needs it.

It dips into the lives of a score or more characters but centres on novelist Hugh Marriner, plagued by debt and a rocky relationship with his boyfriend Nigel who has placed his hopes on selling a script to film director Maurice. However, he’s borrowing from black-marketeer Siegfried (Danny Webb) who is being given the runaround by Sinéad Matthews’ flighty Elizabeth. Charles Edwards is perfect as panicking, self-pitying Hugh and Jonathan Slinger cruelly camp as outrageous Maurice, with Esh Alladi as his whipping boy assistant Cyril.

It is a play packed with precise and often comic cameos from Lloyd Hutchinson’s sozzled painter and Jenny Galloway’s butch book critic (who sank Hugh’s career) to Aaron Heffernan’s GI Butch, looking for tail, and Martin Matthews’ would-be novelist airman.

When Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Nigel appears he brings a breath of reality to this world of posh posing and bohemian excess that doesn’t want to think about Hitler’s Holocaust or the refugees across Europe, unprepared for the changes the election will bring them.

In the 50s it was playwright NC Hunter who was called the English Chekhov, but Ackland more than earns the title with this picture of a society about to face change, a sharp critique that is also very funny.

Director Joe Hill-Gibbins and designer Lizzie Clachan have turned an intimate Soho club into a multi-level setting to fill up the Lyttleton stage, added a host of extras and made the typists in the Labour Party headquarters opposite a permanent presence along with a Soho tart who parades round the set.

A pre-curtain full cast rendition of La Vie en Rose sets the pattern for some very stylised moments in a staging that seems overblown. It lasts three hours (and was 40 minutes longer when first previewed) but things move rapidly because it is so packed with lively performances.

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