Thursday 3 May 2018

Absolute Hell at the National, or, Voices from the Edge of the Abyss

My only previous encounter with director Joe Hill-Gibbins was his frankly dreadful production of Edward II in the Olivier. As a result, I was not particularly optimistic about this in advance. To my surprise it proved to have much to commend it.

The work itself clearly merits revival – I dissent here from quite a few professional reviewers. It's a powerful ensemble piece set in Soho on the verge of the 1945 Labour election victory. Although the cast of characters is very large, and many get only a limited time on stage, I found the ambiguities of the writing intriguing not annoying and I never felt the text needed to do more to flesh them out. Even in the smaller cameos it always gives us just enough to interest and convince. On the whole it doesn't feel overlong (certainly not in comparison to the recent similar marathon of John in the Dorfman), though I did feel Ackland struggled a bit with an ending.

Hill-Gibbins, set designer Lizzie Clachan and Associate Director/Movement Jennie Ogilvie (in particular) are mostly successful in making these characters live. Although there is quite a lot of busyness going on at the fringes of the stage, this didn't for me distract from a tight focus on the key interactions at the front. Unlike many recent Lyttelton shows the play did not feel lost in the space. Contrary to his Edward II Hill-Gibbins here shows a much surer touch in terms of physical contact or the lack of it, and general positioning of personnel on stage.

In advance I had been concerned to read a review that stated there were sightline problems from the side stalls. It is certainly true that from my seat on the left hand aisle (looking towards the stage) the bar area and whatever is situated behind the huge staircase was not visible. But I think this may be an advantage – no critical scene takes place there – and if there is a lot of busyness going on back there it is almost certainly a good thing for immersion in the central drama not to be able to see it.
Clachan's set generally works. Granted the big staircase in the centre is pretty underused, but I've seen much more annoying superfluous bits of set. I wasn't wholly convinced about placing the bar side on, but on the other hand it allows for a rather clever fluidity between the main action and the back of the bar which seemed to fit well with key relationships. Two things are mistaken. The inclusion of the Labour Party offices at the back right is completely superfluous (again I could hardly see them which was a benefit) and would have been better cut. Secondly, Hill-Gibbins and Clachan's failure to maintain consistency in terms of the internal layout of the club – that is what routes are possible for people inhabiting this space.

There is a further slightly odd confusion about the staging, which impinges most on the final scene. Up to that point I had forgotten a line I'd read in another review about everybody staying in the same costumes all the way through. Now I started to notice and be irritated by this. In relation to this I also began to reflect more on the prostitute who walks round and round the stage throughout the show. There is also a very irritating moment when Kate Fleetwood's Christine declares “Let's have the pink lights” and all the lamps which are now stacked up awaiting departure come on – it just isn't convincing that they've been clumped together ready to be removed (like everything else) and yet this has not required them to be unplugged. It struck me that there was in all these elements the remains of a more abstract staging. It is fortunate that realism, on the whole, trumped such an approach.

One of the worst failings of the Norris National has been the weak quality of the ensemble in too many productions. It's a pleasure to be able to report that this ensemble is really strong. The supporting players include many fine performances: Patricia England's (Julia Shillitoe) funny sad battiness, Esh Alladi's (Cyril Clatworthy) bullied secretary – who has one brief moment to show us the heart of the character which he plays beautifully, John Sackville's subtly drawn Douglas Eden – an actor showing a real mastery of making stillness speak, and Eileen Walsh's Madge.

The pick of the larger roles, for me, were Danny Webb's Siegfried Shrager and Charles Edwards's Hugh Marriner. Perhaps the most moving moment in the entire show comes with Edwards's and his lover Nigel's (Prasanna Puwanarajah) final scene – again we've seen comparatively little of them together, but Ackland makes the bond, for all their quarrels and problems, powerfully live, and makes us hope for them. Webb's is another performance which does a great deal with stillness and facial expression. I was less convinced by two of the women. I wasn't convinced by Sinead Matthews on previous encounters (in Hedda Gabler and Evening at the Talk House). She's better in the early scenes here, but as the play goes on it becomes clear that she hasn't the subtlety the character needs – it's all at the same level. This is the more exposed because Webb (her principal lover) finds just that layering performance that all these ambiguously drawn characters require – the scene where she strikes him should pack more punch. This is one of the reasons why the play does drag just a little in the last scene. Kate Fleetwood's Christine is generally strong but didn't quite always compel me to attend as Edwards and others did and I felt could have found more subtlety in the final moments (though I may have been effected here by the business with the lights already mentioned). As a general point there are a few places where I felt Hill-Gibbins could do to direct individual performers to take it down a notch – there's much fine subtle work here, but the work almost never needs to be in your face, and there are some places where performances are more so than required and thus achieve less impact.

Not a flawless afternoon then, but a deserved revival of a powerful work, generally done to the kind of high standard which the National ought to aspire to and has too infrequently achieved under Rufus Norris. Well worth catching.

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