Post War Blues

By Ian Shuttleworth

In 1952, successful stage and screenwriter Rodney Ackland premiered his play, the Pink room (or the escapists), about the staff and clientele of a Soho nightclub in 1945 who used drink and sex as means of fleeing from the horrors of war, the uncertainties of the new postwar era, and their lives in general. Audience and critics alike felt it too squalid and shocking; it closed after three weeks and so, more or less, did Ackland’s career.

In 1987 he rewrote it and retitled it Absolute hell. Now free of the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, his approach to the squalor and shock was to do them full strength. he lived long enough to see the new version greeted with acclaim, but not long enough to see the National Theatre's production of it in 1995. Now it’s revived there, and it’s not always easy viewing, but it’s an admirable piece of work.

It’s not that we find alcoholism or casual (hetero, homo or bi) sex too strong fare. it’s that Ackland regards it all with an eye that is unjudgmental yet unyielding, and director Joe Hill-Gibbins does likewise. there are a handful of references in the play to Fifi the working girl walking her beat outside; Hill-Gibbins punctuates his staging by having Rachel Dale’s Fifi repeatedly pace around the edges of the stage. lizzie Clachan’s set strikes exactly the right note of cheap but not (quite) shabby, and the cast...

Well, for a start, there are nearly 30 of them. They include Danny Webb as an Austrian exile, Sinéad Matthews as his unfaithful beloved, Lloyd Hutchinson as a drunken painter, Eileen Walsh as a religious crackpot (from Belfast, of course) and Jonathan Slinger as a venomous film producer.

The leads are Kate Fleetwood, whose bohemian-imperious Christine runs the club as her personal fiefdom, secure (temporarily) from the realities outside, and Charles Edwards as Hugh, who even when in his cups or a Gi’s pants can never shake the awareness that both his writing career and his gay affair are in their terminal phases. It’s a huge canvas, in lots of ways. Ackland and Hill-Gibbins pull off the rare feat of making it seem like a great collective ensemble piece yet also allowing us to feel that individual figures are palpably the stars of their own plot strands. As for the world it shows, we see both the 1945 election that returned the Attlee government And, never quite defined but scarcely needing to be, the long, harrowing shadow of the ‘horror camps’ in Europe. Somehow it feels immediate both to the events depicted and to the period in which we’re sitting watching them. Unsettling in all the best ways.

Runs until 16 June at the National Theatre (Lyttleton), London SE1: 020-7452 3000,