The Wednesday Play: Absolute Hell (1991)

Bad reviews and low audience turnouts can really shake a playwright’s nerves. Case in point: Rodney Ackland.

Ackland’s The Pink Room/The Escapists was the playwright’s first large-cast drama, following a series of musical collaborations during the 1940s. First performed in Brighton and then at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1952, the play was set in Soho right after World War 2 and had a cast of characters including gay men, lesbians, party girls, drunks and drag queens that pushed stage ‘morality’ at the time to its limits.

Unsurprisingly, it got a severe critical panning and the play’s financier – no lesser a person than Terence Rattigan – is alleged to have never wanted to see Ackland again.

As a result, for 40 years, apart from one further play and an adaptation, that was it from Ackland. However, in the 1980s, when permissiveness was greater and while suffering from leukaemia, Ackland decided to rewrite the play, retitling it Absolute Hell in the process. And in 1988, it was performed in Richmond at the Orange Tree to some success – a little too late for Ackland.

In 1991, just a few months before Ackland’s death, Anthony Page adapted it for the BBC. Starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Francesca Annis, Charles Gray, Nathaniel Parker, Ray Winstone and many others, Absolute Hell is thoroughly enjoyable, if only to see the great and the good gaying it up for all they’re worth.