ABSOLUTE HELL | London, National Theatre

Rodney Ackland’s 1951 three-hour ode to post-war Soho has been revived in a new production directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins. An enormous cast of thoroughly unlikeable characters, who all frequent the cobweb-chic “La Vie en Rose” club, somehow still manages to seem endlessly engaging, surprising, and shocking.

“How would you translate “La Vie en Rose” exactly?” asks one of the members; but “the life in pink” has many different meanings. First, there’s the constant urge to leave the horrors of the war, wreckage, and rationing, and venture into “the pink” by drink, novels, destructive sexual relationships, or, for many characters, a bloody mix-up of all three. Nervous wreck Hugh Marriner (Charles Edwards) longs to have success for his novels but can’t seem to cling onto reality, while charming proprietress Christine Foskett (Kate Fleetwood) seems only to seek the most toxic and fleeting of hook-ups.

Then there’s the connotations of pink for gay men and the internalised, silent homophobia that goes along with it. Hugh’s conservative, nine-year partner Nigel Childs (Prasanna Puwanarajah) leaves Hugh for a wife and a promise of decency. “Butch” (Aaron Heffernan), an American G.I., seeks a “piece of ass” only to assert his dominance: he won’t pay for it. Overworked, sleaze-bag film producer Maurice Hussey (Jonathan Slinger) preys on beautiful young men and violently abuses his long-suffering drag queen assistant Cyril Clatworthy (Esh Alladi).

There is also the reference to “pinkos” and the looming arrival of Labour’s socialism. All the way through the first two acts, a typist sits up high in a fully furnished Labour campaign office at the back of the sprawling, multi-level set (designed by Lizzie Clachan), a promise of things to come. The play begins with a full-cast direct address to the audience in front of the “red” curtain, lit pink, a figurative historic barrier. The play is long and its world complex and sad, but there is so much to see. A fresh and thought-provoking period piece.

You can visit Hell until 16 June 2018. £15 day tickets are available.

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