Set in 1945, in Soho club ‘La Vie en Rose,’ a group of misfit artists and dreamers, scheme, drink and flirt away the last days of WWII. Just like the song’s central metaphor – of seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses – Rodney Ackland’s characters surround themselves with opulence, laughter & alcohol, in the hope that they can transcend pain and escape from their own despair and longing.
The ensemble is vast, spanning age, race, class & gender. It seems odd that such a varied crowd would ever find themselves together, but that is what’s so great about Absolute Hell. Despite the pretention, ‘La Vie en Rose’ is ironically a very inclusive and tolerant club. Welcoming of drunks, gays, blacks and even Tories; there is absolutely no discrimination, or barriers of sex, colour, background, or money. Even by today’s standards, such freedom and attitudes are to be admired.
Lizzie Clachan’s set design is immense, covering various quarters and spanning several stories. The lavish parlour is filled with chandeliers, art deco furniture and Persian rugs ornately strewn around the stage. A grand mirror stands proudly at the club entrance, reflecting the truth behind the façade. Nicky Gillibrand’s stunning costumes range from the G.I. uniforms of the US Army, to the glamorous cocktail dresses of fashionable society. Almost in tribute to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, night club owner Christine (Kate Fleetwood), is first seen wearing a striking crimson dress; perhaps a subtle hint to what is in store for the character.
With a cast of close to 30, it is superbly acted. Although it is surprising to see actors using microphones at The Royal National Theatre. Fleetwood delivers a heart-aching turn as the lonely Christine, and fading writer Hugh Marriner (a projection of Ackland himself), is played with great ease by Charles Edwards. There are some fantastic characterisations throughout and Sinead Matthews, as Elizabeth and Danny Webb, as Siegfried Shrager are particularly a delight to watch. The silent circling of street walker Fifi (Rachel Dale), is a constant reminder of the outside world and gives a living sense to the streets. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins ensures there is a place for everyone; whether drinking in the background, dining in the upstairs parlour or taking part in the drama unfolding on centre stage.
The play contains one of the first – if not the first- direct references to the Holocaust in British theatre. The tragic story of Herta Zimmerman resonates with power and dignity and acts as a shocking wake-up call from the real world, which no amount of drinking can forget.
Absolute Hell plays at the National Theatre until 6th June.
Tickets direct from the box office here.