Underrated: The case for Rodney Ackland

"Underrated" doesn't quite describe Rodney Ackland: try "utterly unknown". Between 1929 and the mid-Sixties, with a brief Indian summer in the 1980s, he wrote something like 40 plays and films. The films include the odd minor classic (he worked, for instance, on Emeric Pressburger's 49th Parallel); and while he enjoyed more than his share of failures, his plays regularly reached the West End, attracting stars like Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft.

Somehow or other, Rodney Ackland has been overlooked. His name doesn't appear in reference books, his plays are rarely performed and have been out of print for years. Until a few years ago, when Absolute Hell and Dark River were revived at the Orange Tree in Richmond, he seemed to have become a non-person.

I don't want to put the case for Ackland as a dramatist of genius; but the case for a distinctive playwright, whose work deserves more attention than it has had, looks unanswerable. His problem was that he fell between two stools. In form and language, his plays are old-fashioned - his name is sometimes coupled with Terence Rattigan's. When the Angry Young Men came along, there was no room for Acklands.

But Ackland had never fitted into the cosy, pre-Osborne West End either. When The Pink Room - later reworked as Absolute Hell - was first produced in 1952, its portrait of a bunch of losers seeking shelter from the Second World War in a Soho drinking club was condemned as "a libel on the British people". It lasted two weeks.

Now, it looks as if the play was simply ahead of its time. Anthony Page, who directed a 1991 TV production of Absolute Hell, and who also directs the National's new staging, detects anticipations of Osborne and Pinter in the "acrid, subversive tone". He also finds parallels with Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill in Ackland's "naked emotionalism, the obsession with sex that some of the characters have as a means of escape" - a surprising comparison, since Ackland's own leanings were towards the Russian playwrights.

If not handled with care, Ackland's drama can descend into melodrama - witness last year's revival at Greenwich of The Old Ladies, a stark tale of good versus evil set among the lodgers of a boarding-house. But there's a desire to wrestle with big themes that's unusual in English theatre in the first half of this century - if nothing else, he has rarity value. It's come too late for Ackland, who died in 1991, but that value is now being recognised.

n 'Absolute Hell' opens tonight at the National Theatre, London SE1 (Box- office: 0171-928 2252)

Robert Hanks

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