Absolute Hell – National Theatre (Ben’s Review)

By Ben Ayaydin

There is a buzz of excitement and anticipation as the audience settles into their seats. Suddenly, from the side aisles the cast ascend to the stage, around 20 of them in their authentic 1940s clothing. A note from a harmonica is played, then the cast burst harmoniously into La Vie En Rose. Curtain up, revealing the interior of the ‘La Vie en Rose’ drinking club and transporting us to the setting of post war Britain.

From the start, the set is one of the play’s standout features. It presents the audience with a grotty, dark atmosphere resonating with the idea that whilst Britain won the war, it still suffered from years of constant German bombing and economic hardships. All credit must go to the set designer, Lizzie Clachan, and lighting designer, Jon Clark, for creating such an immersive set which lent itself well to the time period.

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As mentioned earlier the cast is huge, totalling to 40 actors potentially being on stage at the same time (including those in minor roles). This results in certain periods of the play having many characters on the set at once, however this did not make the stage feel overcrowded as you might assume. Instead it made the environment of the club feel lived in and alive, further adding to the atmosphere of the setting.

Club members are from all backgrounds and walks of life – the writer, the director, the critic, the American GI, the black market dealer, the overprotective mother, to name a few. All of these characters come to the club to escape their lives regardless of each other’s class and background. The intermingling plots created as a consequence, creates compelling and interesting storylines. Despite there being multiple characters, I felt that each of the main characters got enough stage time to be well developed and unique in their own way.

Kate Fleetwood’s portrayal of Christine Foskett, the owner of the club, is moving and engaging as she battles with her personal life (as well as the lives of those around her), whilst keeping the club afloat. Moreover, Charles Edwards’ role as the writer Hugh Marriner is equally as distinctive as he tries desperately to get his script accepted, whilst dealing with the failure of his relationship and the ever present figure of his mother over his shoulder. All the actors had strong performances and which helped breathe life into the characters’ narrative.

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I really enjoyed Absolute Hell.  I was immersed within all the intertwining plots and a side of post-war Britain that is often neglected in favour of the post-war optimism more widely depicted of this time period. Instead we see a war weary atmosphere, in which the characters just want to rebuild their lives and enjoy themselves in the moment. While the play is 3 hours long (including a 15 minute and a 5 minute interval), it will not bother you if you are immersed within the play’s story. Consequently, if you are not enjoying the narrative then you will have a hard time enjoying Absolute Hell.

As I write this review after returning from the play, I have La Vie En Rose playing in the background. It makes me think about all the stories on that stage, the hope, the sacrifice, the desire to escape from the world around the, all of them different but eventually coming to the same conclusion. They all have one thing that is constant in their lives and that brings them together; ‘La Vie En Rose’.

Absolute Hell was written by Rodney Ackland, with its current iteration at the National Theatre directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins and running till the 16th of June 2018.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

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