I’ve been having a ‘mare with ordering theatre tickets recently. For our last two trips I seem to have managed to order five tickets for each performance. Ordering four might have some logic in that we might take one or other of our children and their other halves. That though would involve me asking them if they were free and were interested, neither case being in point. At no stage would five make sense…
Much like the play. Set in the immediate aftermath of the end of World War Two in bomb damaged Soho and immediately preceding the General Election all the action takes place in a disintegrating drinking club. That’s about the sum total of the plot. It’s a long play with a series of rich characters who are well drawn. They drink, they interact and they too, generally, fall to bits, much like the infrastructure all around them. Glimmers of hope are as often as not snuffed out as they are encouraged and by the end of 3 hours – quite a long 3 hours if I’m honest – not much is standing. Including both my credibility and my patience.
Absolute Hell was first performed in 1952 and it was scandalous. No Home Fit For Heroes this. My parents would have been horrified, mortified and scandalised by it. But, secretly, I expect they might have also recognised something. Today we both know war is shite, but also there are rarely winners. The heroes are mentally damaged and those who aren’t, aren’t the heroes. Rarely does anyone have a plan for the ‘what next’ when all the energies of wartime are spent on the goal of winning. Whoever, really, wins the peace?
But so much more could have been done here, so much more depth could have been plunged. It was written – as it was intended – to show nihilism is the end-game of war, not peace; but much like a play about apathy or syphilis – you know it exists without having to watch it develop over three hours – watching an exposition on self-destruction is, well, on this occasion self-defeating. One theme – of a young woman whose friend was freed from a concentration camp only to die during her rehabilitation by the Red Cross – could have been taken in all sorts of directions but it faded to grey, through the characters, possibly self-protective, indifference, like so much else.
What is undeniable is that the individual characters are creations worthy of fine acting and we had a lot of fine acting. There was the occasional bum note – the American RAF pilot’s fascination with mystics in India, intended I think to emphasise a childlike naivete that someone somewhere had ‘the answers’, merely came across as woodenly acted as might a clumsy child act a part of complex adult emotions. But for the most part the acting was terrific and it alone kept me in my seat until the final curtain.
A fair few people skipped the second half; they probably missed a decent ice cream, but they didn’t miss the denouement. The end and the beginning felt pretty much the same.