Absolute Hell @ National Theatre: Pipe Dreams and Illusions

“… Even here they keep up the appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows.” – Larry, in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

If you imagine The Iceman Cometh in Soho then you’re pretty close to the experience of watching Absolute Hell.


I remember being told in a first-year lecture that the people living in 1920s Britain obviously didn’t know they were living in the interwar period, but they did strongly suspect it. I was thinking of that as I watched the mayhem of the La Vie en Rose club unfold on the Lyttelton stage, that perhaps the surge in drinking and music and freedom that comes after a war has nothing to do with celebration, and everything to do with the fear of an imminent repeat.

These people, at the end of the 1940s, have been through a massive psychological trauma – directly, and indirectly. There’s little point in deeper analysis when you remember that the rooves of these people fell in on them under the weight of bombs. They know what it’s like to experience war, and they’re self-medicating as a result; with booze, with delusions, with sex in varying configurations.

And that’s sort of the whole play, right there. Lonely, traumatised people, trying to cope. There’s no great streak of drama running down the middle to pull you along.

To say “nothing happens” in Absolute Hell may well be objectively true, but it is a gross oversimplification. All it means, is that the joy of the piece is not in the paciness (can someone please confirm if this is or is not a word) of the plot, but in the crackle of the dialogue as it’s flung across the stage in its bitter arcs, and in the gorgeously hideous characters and the spin across the stage in their delusional post-war haze.

It can feel like the audience – much like Fifi, who is constantly walking the perimeter of the stage – is going around in circles, hearing the same thing over and over again. But it’s not a circle, it’s a spiral, and – admittedly later rather than sooner – you hit the nucleus. You hit the very centre of everyone’s crises and the whole thing starts to fall apart. In that sense, it does carry the echoes of Iceman, and Uncle Vanya. Nothing happens, except… everything?

Rodney Ackland’s play contains a whole world; a slice of history, post-war but pre-Suez, still an age of food rationing, queerness in a state of semi-understanding, the birth of consensus, an age of sort-of nihilistic/optimistic decadence. An age of “well, fuck it.” Its contradictions cannot sustain it, however, and Ackland, by the time of his revisions in the 1980s, knew it was coming to an end. Its brevity seems inevitable, given the benefit of hindsight. Strange to think it was the era that the Thatcher governments would seek to replicate, given its idiosyncrasies and its volatility. Or perhaps not, come to think of it.

It’s not a perfect play, but it is one that just seethes life, and energy, and honestly it looks like everyone involved is having an absolute blast.


Obviously none of that academic shite matters if the production is crap. Fortunately, it’s not.

Joe Hill-Gibbins is a director who until now has always eluded me slightly, I’ve always got that what he does is provocative, and I know why people like it, but I’d never felt it myself. It seems strange to say that with his most ‘traditional’ of the three productions of his that I’ve seen, I ‘get it.’ He’s brilliant at orchestrating ensembles, defining characters within them – with the very important help of Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes – and making them feel real and not, present and not. He makes the play vaguely ghost-like, almost a memory play, or something. There’s something presentational in there, almost pageant-y. As if it’s happening in that very particular period in history, and also now, and also never.

Lizzie Clachan’s set is gorgeous, incidentally. It towers up into the Lyttelton flies, and stretches back into its upstage reaches, and out into the wings. But it’s never quite complete, it’s just spare parts of a building, under construction, or under de-construction. Also shout out to the stage team for the now slightly infamous four-minute set change. The only acceptable reason to substitute an interval for a pause.

Though Absolute Hell is very much an ensemble piece, there are clearly a couple of prominent figures, chief among them Christine, the owner of the club, played here by Kate Fleetwood. Known to me mostly for excelling in emotionally-restrained characters, steely and chilly, here she’s giving pure camp and I loved it. She’s flirty, and messy, and would absolutely kick anyone’s arse in a fight. But then, at the end, when the ceiling is (literally) falling in on her, all the camp falls away and there’s pure grief, and loneliness, and horror.

The other, is Charles Edwards’ Hugh – for once not (explicitly) playing a Tory – a gay writer, trying to get enough money to hold his relationship together, while keeping his mother largely none the wiser. The play’s treatment of Hugh is fascinating, the way his relationship is giving complete legitimacy, it made me wonder how it played in 1995. There’s a delicacy to what Edwards does, a precision, even as Hugh is fraying at the edges. He’s clearly an actor with an immense technical ability, but in this instance it never feels cold, only peculiarly human.

There’s brilliant turns also from Aaron Heffernan (who was sooooo good in Caroline Byrne’s Taming of the Shrew) as an American GI, and Sinéad Matthews as a woman who cannot or will not process the death of a friend in a concentration camp (apparently Absolute Hell was the first British play to directly reference the Holocaust(?)) but it almost feels unfair to single them out. It’s a brilliant company of actors working with a really difficult text.


The blog post is overwritten to hell but if I didn’t write it like this it was never getting written and I really liked it so I wanted to write about it. Boom. There’s like 10 performances left, definitely try to see it.

Photo by Johan Persson


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