It was a fringe rediscovery of this 1952 play at Richmond's Orange Tree in 1988 that reignited interest in this neglected play, and led directly to a famous 1991 TV version, directed by Antony Page and starring Judi Dench as the landlady of a Soho drinking club in 1945 Britain. Page subsequently directed Dench in the play's stage return to the National in 1995, and now it gets its second NT outing on the same expansive Lyttelton stage in a stunning production that teems with life and impressionistic drama.
It's harder to find the semblance of much of a plot as people come and go, obliterating reality as they variously get drunk and have spaghetti dinners, before returning to their complicated lives. Meanwhile, a solitary female streetwalker plods relentlessly around the perimeter of the stage throughout, while another person can be seen typing constantly in a dimly lit upstairs room. The multiple levels of Lizzie Clachan's sprawling set aren't especially evocative of time or place – instead, it is left to an astonishingly large cast which runs to nearly 30 actors to populate it with character (and characters).
Some we come to know a little better than others, in particular a hauntingly sympathetic Charles Edwards as a debt-ridden man who is waiting for an elusive break as a screenwriter and in the process of being dumped by his male lover Nigel (Prasanna Puwanarajah), who has decided to go straight. The club's desperately lonely landlady Christine Foskett (Kate Fleetwood) staves off her own isolation by keeping the doors open way beyond closing time. A grumpy literary critic (Jenny Galloway) passes her own verdict on the proceedings.
The performances are full of sparkle and desperation by turns, with wonderful work from such brilliant character actors as Jonathan Slinger, Lloyd Hutchinson, Sinead Matthews and Joanna David.
Director Joe Hill-Gibbins' production is a deliberately slow-burn, but the three hours it takes are captivatingly detailed. If you surrender to it, you will feel like you're in the room with them.
Absolute Hell Tickets are available now.