Absolute Hell at the National Theatre: A play ahead of its time

Absolute Hell outraged audiences and was harshly received in the early 1950s, only to remerge in the late 80s to critical acclaim and huge success. Today it’s just started a run at the National Theatre. Here’s a brief introduction to this controversial dark comedy.

Absolute Hell is a scandalous black comedy set in a Soho drinking club amongst the ruins of wartime London in the weeks leading up to the 1945 election.

When it was first performed in 1952 (under the title The Pink Room), it was branded ‘a libel on the British people’, panned by critics, and as good as booed off stage.


That debut staging of The Pink Room – first in Brighton and later at the Lyric Hammersmith in London – was largely financed by the dramatist Terence Rattigan, who liked the play and believed it deserved a London production.

But after its poor reception, and apart from one further play and an adaptation, it led to a 40-year near-silence from the show’s playwright, Rodney Ackland.

However, following the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s licensing and censorship functions in 1968, there was a growing freedom about what could be presented on the stage, and in the 1980s, while ailing with leukaemia, Rodney Ackland rewrote aspects of The Pink Room, retitling it Absolute Hell.

It was shown in its new form in 1988 to considerable success at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-upon-Thames, directed by Sam Walters and John Gardyne, and starring Polly Hemingway and David Rintoul.

In 1991 it was adapted and directed for BBC Television by Anthony Page, starring Dame Judi Dench as Christine Foskett, and the play was revived by Page at the National Theatre in 1995, again with Dench in the leading role, who won an Olivier Award for Best Actress for her performance the following year.

Now it’s back at the National Theatre, with a large ensemble directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, and it remains true to its roots: set in a Soho drinking den recovering from the hangover following World War Two.

Absolute Hell is on now at the National Theatre, Upper Ground, South Bank, Lambeth, London, SE1 9PX.

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