Review: Absolute Hell

3 star rating
Rodney Ackland's play is like spying on a drunken evening through a pub door. For the first hour it is intoxicating but then you just want them all to drink up so you can go home.
Absolute Hell at National Theatre

Image: National Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 16 June 2018

Rodney Ackland

Joe Hill-Gibbins


Esh Alladi

Elizabeth Andrewartha

Ashley Byam

Jonathan Coote

Rachel Dale

Carole Dance

Joanna David

Charles Edwards

Patricia England

Kate Fleetwood

Jenny Galloway

Frazer Hadfield

Aaron Heffernan

Simon Hepworth

Lloyd Hutchinson

Martins Imhangbe

Stephanie Jacob

Fiz Marcus

Sinéad Matthews

Connor Mills

Prasanna Puwanarajah

Anita Reynolds

John Sackville

Liza Sadovy

Jonathan Slinger

Eileen Walsh

Danny Webb

Jade Yourell


An intoxicating plunge into post-war Soho.

Bomb-blasted London.

A Soho den in the hangover from World War II, where members drink into the darkness, night after night.

Lying, fighting and seducing, these lost souls and bruised lovers struggle from the rubble of war towards an unknown future.


Rodney Ackland's extraordinarily provocative play was condemned as 'a libel on the British people' when first performed in 1952.

Now it emerges as an intoxicating plunge into post-war Soho; full of despair and longing.

Joe Hill-Gibbins returns to the NT to direct a large ensemble in this new production.


ActDrop reviews

David Ford

Performance date: Thursday 17 May 2018
Review star rating image for 3 stars


Rodney Ackland's play 'Absolute Hell' is like spying on a drunken evening through a pub door.

For the first hour it is intoxicating but then you just want them all to drink up so you can go home.

The play takes place in 'La Vie en Rose', a seedy Soho drinking den full of confused characters seeking sex and oblivion.

It is set in the Summer of 1945, in a war weary London that is under the shadow of Auschwitz and on the brink of a Labour Government (though the clientele prefer to hide from the outside world).

When first produced in 1952 (as the Pink Room) the sordid world it depicted was not what respectable audiences wanted to see and it ended Rodney Ackland's career.

The play runs for over 3 hours and has a cast of nearly thirty but only 2 real characters - Christine, the lonely, emotionally fragile club owner (a charismatic and sensual Kate Fleetwood) and Hugh a failing gay writer (brilliantly played by Charles Edwards) who is constantly on the cadge.

Esh Alladi is excellent in the minor role of camp dogsbody Cyril Clatworthy.

The rest of the ensemble (black GIs, gay critics and film producers, tormented artists, black marketers and Fifi, a prostitute who endlessly circles the streets of nearby Piccadilly) only serve to emphasise the real subject of the play which is the desperate desire to escape a bombed out London through the neck of a bottle.

The last two scenes of the play are rushed and unsatisfactory and could be cut.

Watching others get drunk becomes rather boring and by the end the jokes have turned stale and the characters search for sex has gone flaccid.

The club literally starts to fall apart around them.

The party is over and the hangover has already started to set in.

The final word of the play is hell.

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