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Theatre: Mood Music and Absolute Hell, reviewed by Paul Bailey

Arts | By Paul Bailey | June 2018

Poor Rodney Ackland. When his play The Pink Room was staged at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1952, the London critics savaged it. They took a high moral line regarding the dramatist’s unhealthy interest in the lives of men and women who spent their days and nights drinking to excess and indulging in sexual activities of a kind that right-thinking people considered unacceptable. 

The words ‘sordid’ and ‘squalid’ were employed in the reviews. Yet Ackland was writing about a Soho milieu he knew well: the legendary Colony Room, ruled over by the majestically foul-mouthed Muriel Belcher, whose favoured clients included the painters Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, writers such as Colin MacInnes and Julian MacLaren-Ross, journalists Jeffrey Bernard and Daniel Farson, and a galaxy of self-proclaimed bohemian talents, most of whom are barely remembered if not forgotten.

Despite being graced with a wonderful central performance by Hermione Baddeley as Christine, Ackland’s recreation of Muriel, The Pink Room disappeared, thanks to a combination of hysterical puritanism and the constraints of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, which protected theatregoers from unpleasant matters such as homosexuality and jokes about Queen Victoria. 

Then, in 1988, it reappeared, with the new and apposite title Absolute Hell at the enterprising Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, under the aegis of Sam Walters and John Gardyne. Their revival inspired a new interest in Ackland’s work, and three years later it resurfaced in a BBC TV production by Anthony Page, starring Judi Dench, as an entertainingly blowzy Christine, and Bill Nighy, some weeks before the playwright’s death in December 1991. That version is available on YouTube, where it runs for two engrossing hours.

Page directed the play again in 1995 at the Lyttelton. The current presentation of Absolute Hell at the same venue is not so much a revival as an entombment. Joe Hill-Gibbins, who massacred Marlowe’s Edward II at the Olivier not long ago, has now put his deadly mark on Ackland’s subtle and often delicate piece, dragging it out for over three hours with extraneous ‘comic’ business and far too much unsteady singing and dancing. He has encouraged the actors to indulge in grotesque exaggeration, the principal offenders being Jonathan Slinger, who turns the film mogul Maurice Hussey into a grimacing freak, and Esh Alladi as his assistant, Cyril Clatworthy, who outcamps every camp performer one has ever seen. They are surrounded by an assortment of stage drunks, as distinct from the real inebriated men and women of Ackland’s imagination, with a miscast Kate Fleetwood dispensing the drinks. 

As he demonstrated in his equally misguided interpretation of Edward II, Hill-Gibbins likes a bit of novelty. The brilliant idea on this occasion is to keep the bar, which should be the centre of attention in Absolute Hell, almost completely out of sight. That’s really novel. Since we are in 1945, there has to be a huge poster on the back wall of the set calling on voters to choose the Labour Party. Two completely unnecessary characters have been added to the cast list: a zombie-like prostitute who walks up and down outside the La Vie en Rose club (alias the Colony) and a typist in an office in semi-darkness far up in the flies who clickety-clacks throughout the show.

The brilliant Charles Edwards, as self-pitying novelist Hugh Marriner, works tirelessly to salvage a modicum of believability from the capsizing wreck, but he’s not always on stage, alas. The first previews of this disaster lasted ten minutes short of four hours. Some 45 minutes have been cut already. That’s not nearly enough. Poor, poor Rodney Ackland.

Joe Penhall’s short new play Mood Music, finely directed by Roger Michell at the Old Vic, is concerned with the legal battle between a talented pop singer and composer named Cat, touchingly acted by Seána Kerslake, and her creepy producer, Bernard, played with unnerving conviction by Ben Chaplin. The dispute is centred on a single hit, with both parties claiming copyright. He’s a Svengali, or a Weinstein perhaps, and she is the innocent victim. They are surrounded by two psychoanalysts and a couple of lawyers. Jemma Redgrave has a quality of stillness and calm that is all her own as Cat’s shrink, Vanessa, and she uses it to beautiful effect here. Mood Music is at its most persuasive when it concentrates on the animosity that the singer and the businessman have towards one another, but when it strays from the personal into the general state of the music industry it loses focus. Kurt Egyiawan, Pip Carter and Neil Stuke make up the excellent cast.

This story was from June 2018 issue. Subscribe Now