Review: Absolute Hell (or absolute heaven?), National Theatre
The play itself feels peripheral in plot and depth of characters; there's a lot of it and a lot of them and as a result it lacks substance and tension.
Absolute Hell is a big play. It has a cast that when stood in a single line barely fits across the vast Lyttelton stage and in early previews its running time was 3 hours and 40 minutes including two 15 minute intervals.
The running time has been substantially cut to 3 hours partly helped by replacing the second 15-minute interval with a 5-minute pause.
And you know what I'm going to say: It could still be shorter.
That isn't a reflection of the cast, who are superb but the play itself which feels peripheral in plot and depth of characters; there's a lot of it and a lot of them but it lacks substance and tension.
It is set in a seedy private members club in Soho immediately after the second world war where regulars spend night after night drinking, flirting and bickering themselves into some sort of numbness.
They are certainly a colourful bunch of characters - writers, servicemen, artists, journalists, filmmakers, heiresses - and headed by the glamorous, needy, alcoholic owner of the club Christine (Kate Fleetwood).
The war is over, a change of Government is on the horizon but their partying is more about escape and routine than anything joyful.
Little meaningful interaction
And this is the problem. You spend 3 hours with a bunch of people drinking, bitching and lying and occasionally making merry but there is little by way of meaningful interaction between them.
If the lack of meaningful interaction is the point, then it is a point firmly made.
We get only snippets of their past and little insight into what motivates them. The colour is surface.
Storylines left hanging
There is only so much fun and entertainment to be derived from watching a group of people for whom alcohol accentuates their worst characteristics and little else to drive the narrative.
And where there are some potentially interesting storylines you are ultimately left hanging.
It is a feat of direction and coordination on the part of director Joe Hill-Gibbins and the cast and for that, it must be admired but having such a full stable of characters means less time spent with individuals
As a result, I got to the end of the 3 hours feeling like I knew only a little more of each of them than I did at the start.
When it was first staged in the 50s, Rodney Ackland's play was seen as provocative and perhaps that is what sustained it but there is little of that provocation left in the 21st century.
Absolute Hell is at the National Theatre until 16 June and I'm giving it 3 stars.