Peace is hell, darling

THEATRE; Absolute Hell National Theatre, London

As the denizens of La Vie en Rose, a wartime drinking club, chatter and squabble and burst into tears, an ominous noise is heard offstage. Outside, in the unholy sunlight, the victorious Labour voters of 1945 gaily chorus, "The workers' flag is deepest red". Happy days are gone forever: peace has broken out.

When Absolute Hell (then called The Pink Room) was first produced in 1952, Rodney Ackland's career was all but ended by critics who found his play witless and vile. Not only does Ackland implicitly compare socialists with Nazis pounding out the Horst Wessel song, but in a cheeky parody of the blitz, he has the night-club's decrepit ceiling collapse and rain plaster dust on the shrieking proprietress. The characters, considered degenerates at the time, are still pretty seedy. (Ackland made the play more explicitly homosexual after censorship was abolished.) A gay designer services a woman in order to finance his business, and a straight soldier, who thinks paying for sex the lowest form of perversion, ignores the female streetwalker and takes a willing man to bed. The night-club owner, Christine, who won't see middle-age again, ends a desperate, drunken night by stripping for four raucous GIs.

The abuse Ackland suffered and the long neglect of his work (Absolute Hell was finally revived, at the Orange Tree, Richmond, in 1987, and performed on television in 1991, the year he died) has given rise to a view that his work was rejected because the naive and hypocritical Fifties found his realism unpalatable. Anthony Page's loving but lumpy production (the actors in the big fight scene look as if they're searching for their marks) shows, however, that the play has more trouble than premature anti-sentimentalism.

While the characters lounging in Christine's powder-room-pink parlour (wonderful cosily vulgar set by John Gunter) are amusing enough on their first appearance, they are less so on their second and third. Ackland doesn't develop their personalities or the plot - if so formal a term can be applied to a lot of fussing and pouting and flapping about - and the three hour play is not clever enough to live by talk alone. In his revision, Ackland vented his anger at drama critics by portraying one as a pompous, grumpy lesbian who is subjected to a tirade by a sensitive author and gets a drink in the face. Given no chance to be a comic monster, Betty Marsden wins the sympathy that Ackland wanted for himself. Judi Dench, rump swinging efficiently, perfectly embodies the tough, terrified Christine, but also seems to be doing her part more favours than it does her.

Ackland evidently admired Somerset Maugham - the lesbian boasts that she knows him, the American who is off to find the meaning of life in India ("They really know what they're talking about, these yogi guys") seems modelled on the one in The Razor's Edge, and the ending of the play, with Christine shrieking, "To hell with the lot of them!" recalls that of Flotsam and Jetsam. Like Maugham and Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward, Ackland had to treat some subjects in code or not at all. It may be that Absolute Hell is being acclaimed, not because it's the play Ackland wrote, but the one they didn't.

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