“Nothing but drink and sex – drink and sex – one long, never-ending effort to
escape from reality”. That just about sums up the characters who inhabit
La Vie en Rose, a nightclub viewed one month after the end of the
Second World War, which only closes when everyone falls over. Judging by
its bohemian clientele, one imagines that the club, run by Dame Judi
Dench’s hard-nosed but beneath the surface sensitive Christine, must
have been in Soho.
Rodney Ackland’s almost lost play was re-discovered by Sam Walters at
the Orange Tree in Richmond. This production by Anthony Page was first
seen on the BBC in 1991 and then partly recast it transferred to the
National Theatre four years later. In addition to Dame Judi, the big
star is Bill Nighy playing Hugh, an impecunious, gay writer and mummy’s
boy who has never managed to live up to his early success but still
believes that he has a future, ideally in the film world where megabucks
are to be made.
While these two are the central characters in an autobiographical look
at post-war life, there are many other colourful figures to enjoy in
this two-hour drama. Francesca Annis is particularly good as upper-class
Liz. This middle-aged beauty is torn between Ronald Pickup as
respectable Austrian Siegfried and a much younger airman; Charles Gray
impresses as a poisonous film producer, Maurice Hussey; and William
Osborne is perfect as Cyril Clatworthy, his deliciously camp
From the younger generation, Nathaniel Parker plays a beautiful North
American flyer with artistic leanings, Anthony Calf is an English
officer who brings with him reports of concentration camp nightmares and
there is a tiny cameo from Ray Winstone playing a policeman.
The relationships are almost all strained to the limits, with every kind
of sexual pairing represented. The drink flows like water and this
ensures that La Vie, as seen in this play, is rarely far from explosive.
The second half takes place on the night of the post-war election that
brought Labour to power and then three weeks afterwards, as the club is
closing and British life is on the point of changing forever. This is
clearly the time to move onwards from the horrors of the concentration
camps, and the heady decadence that wartime existence permitted those
living in London.
Towards the end, Christine says, “I’m sick and tired of all this
emotionalism” and to be honest, it does get rather wearing. Absolute
Hell is a snapshot of one small layer of society during what has now
become a historical era. It works best as a showcase for a number of
fine actors to show off their skills, in almost every case as examples
of damaged, dissolute but well-to-do drunks.
1.68GB | 2h 00m | 692×576 | mkv