Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

hugh and christine

Penniless Hugh, Dexter Whitehead, and gregariously lonely Christine, Liz Berriman

Absolute Hell

Sutton Arts Theatre


When Rodney Ackland’s play, then called The Pink Room (or The Escapists), first took to the stage in 1952 it took such a panning by the critics that Ackland with some previous 16 plays and three films to his name already, was to write little else to his death in 1991.

It was a pity. This is a play which brought realism to the stage years before the angry young men and their kitchen sink dramas, and who knows what more Ackland had to offer – as it is, it is a hugely ambitious and beautifully acted and directed production by Sutton Arts Theatre with a reaction today much different to its first appearance in post-war Brighton.

The play had been championed and largely financed by Terence Rattigan but when it bombed big time he apparently never wanted to see Ackland again.

The timing was perhaps the thing. The play is set in the summer of 1945 in the weeks between the end of the Second World War in Europe and the July election which saw Labour sweep to power with a 146 seat majority.

It is not so much a play as a collection of plays involving a group of interacting flawed characters that are hard to like, characters for which you feel no emotional attachment. These are not stoic, gutsy, brave Brits who had seen off Hitler and the Nazis, these were people who had largely avoided the war, spending it eating and drinking in a private members club in Soho, La Vie en Rose.



Liz Berriman's Christine is a woman in search of . . . probably just being wanted and not left alone

The play touches on black marketeering, casual sex and homosexuality at a time, 1952, when rationing was still in force, sex out of marriage frowned upon and homosexuality was a crime. 

It wasn’t challenging the social mores of the time, far from it, it was just revealing a seedier, more immoral side to post war Britain, a side people would rather not acknowledge, perhaps a play before it’s time. 

Move on almost 40 years to 1987, past the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship veto, the summers of love in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the play was rediscovered and better received. Fast forward to 1995 and it received theatrical royal approval at the Royal National Theatre with Dame Judi Dench in the role of Christine, the blousy, insecure, mouthy club owner.

It was a role she was to play in the subsequent BBC TV adaptation. The play was revived last year by The National to critical acclaim, Ackland’s redemption was complete.

It is a play which makes no emotional demands on the audience, you are there merely as observers, and therein lies the fascination, watching a collection of disparate characters and their hedonistic lifestyles, almost untouched by war.

Christine, played with a lovely mix of confidence and insecurity by Liz Berriman,  runs her club with a rod of iron when she feels she is in control, and a desperation verging on panic at a fear of being alone – a fear which brings her no end of trouble when, alone and afraid, she opens up in the early hours to a passing group of drunken GIs returning home from a party in animal masks looking for sex. There is a need for company and . . . well let’s just say it was not the best idea she ever had to let them in.


Robbie Newton, left, as aspiring author Sam, Patrick Richmond-Ward as the camp, peevish film executive Maurice, and Gary Pritchard as the Austrian toy maker and black marketeer Siegfried 

While Christine holds court the club is really run by general dogsbody Doris, a harassed Lynette Coffrey, and down below, cook, Amelia Farrelly, who we hear complaining up the dumb waiter and finally see as she pair walk out as the club heads for meltdown – and no doubt demolition.

Among the clientele we have Hugh, a glorious performance from Dexter Whitehead, the always broke, on the cadge for money and cigarettes, novelist who has not written a word since a scathing review from critic RB Monody, played by Faye Hatch, a self-important, unlikeable woman, followed by her assistant Bill, Louise Farmer.

Penniless Hugh has a penchant for rough trade GIs in seedy hotel rooms, is constantly trying to raise loans to keep afloat – “£200 will see me clear” (about £8,500 today) against a film script that will never happen and desperately trying to save an already dead homosexual relationship with dapper, sensible dress designer Nigel, played by Alan Lowe.

Hugh is a constant bundle of nervous energy drinking either on his ever growing slate or on the generosity of other customers, full of excuses and reasons no one will ever believe as he tries to tap up Siegfried, who is Austrian and NOT German, and runs a struggling toy company . . . as well as being a black marketeer; a lovely performance – and accent – by Gary Pritchard. Ziggy, as everyone calls him, is besotted by Elizabeth, played by Phebe Jackson, a faithless good time girl. She claims left wing leanings, but when it comes to election day, can never find the time to vote, what with drinking, dinner, socialising and the like.


Phebe Jackson as the faithless Elizabeth 

There is a clever juxtaposition with the Labour Party offices being on the opposite side of the road, seen through the window, with a man seen diligently typing for most of the play and an office hard at work while in the club it is a life of leisure, hedonism and black market food and drink. 

Meanwhile Elizabeth not so much dumps Ziggy as sidelines him, after all no girl wants to throw away a meal ticket, taking up with the more attractive Sam, an American who joined the Canadian air force before the US entered the war. Sam, played with his usual assurance by Robbie Newton, is less smitten by Elizabeth than she with him – although she always has the faithful Ziggy to fall back on.

Sam is an aspiring writer leaving his manuscript with Hugh to read, something he promises to do with no intention of ever doing it.

The irony is that much the same has happened to Hugh, who has given his film script to film director Maurice, played with a sort of gay cruelty by Patrick Richmond-Ward – who incidentally played Hugh in Sutton Arts’ last production of the play in 1992.

Maurice is rich, bitchy, tells people what they want to hear, even if it is a lie, and is vicious to his gay secretary Cyril, a wonderfully camp performance from Ian Cornock who is blamed for everything and, you suspect, is sacked at least once a week.

Hugh’s film script has never been read, except by Cyril, who does all Maurice’s donkey work, and will never be produced, something Maurice tells him in the bluntest, cruelest terms in a dramatic explosion.

The devastated Hugh is still at heart a mummy’s boy which means he has a mummy, Mrs Marriner, Val Tomlinson, invited to the club and fussing over him like a mother hen, with her friend Mrs Pratt, played by Anne Deakin, in tow. Eventually Hugh is to return to the nest . . . and Christine is to end up alone.


Ex-prisoner of war Michael drinking to make up for lost time . . . or to forget.

Not all are unscathed by the war though. We have Michael, played, at times almost upright, by Keith Hayes. He is a recently liberated POW with a whole war’s worth of drinking to catch up on. Sobriety is a distant memory is he staggers, falls and bumps around the club until he is thrown out. He is an annoying, harmless drunk . . . until he shoots up the place which doesn’t go down too well with the local constabulary, PC Molson, Jack Heaven, and DI Roach, Andrew Tomlinson.

He is not the only drunk though, permanently sozzled is The Treacle Queen, heiress to a treacle empire, given a superior air by Liz Plumpton. She believes socialists should be hanged, and regularly overspends, or rather overdrinks, her £40 a week (£1,750 today) allowance – given, she claims, so her parents don’t need to see her. 

La Vie en Rose is a watering hole for GIs, with Butch, played by Aarron Armstrong-Craddock, as a regular and a favourite of Christine who values her charms much higher than Butch sees them, his interest in her is more concerned with buying black market Scotch – perhaps he didn’t know where the PX was.

He’s rough and ready, “looking for ass”, a term Christine is unfamiliar with . . . but she will be shortly, and one suspects Butch was the randy leader of the animal invasion.

Then there is Douglas, the quiet, rather sad British officer, played by Tom Cooper with an up market accent, just returned from liberating concentration camps and arriving with a sorrowful message for Elizabeth. Here is another link between characters with Nigel heading off to Germany to join UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration set up to help displaced persons, many concentration camp victims. In 1952 the camps and the grotesque pictures were still raw to a population still reeling from the horrors of war.


Dorothy Goodwin as the rather dotty Julia who lost all in the fall of Singapore and finds nightly company and companionship in the club

Douglas is set to return to duty in India, and India, with its fakirs, gurus and paths to enlightenment holds a fascination for Sam who wangles his way to a posting to the sub-continent which devastates Elizabeth. . . just for a while, mind, until she returns to the welcoming wallet . . . sorry, arms of Ziggy.

Now if that motley crew could be said to be unusual, they are bastions of normality against Madge and Julia.

Madge, a stirring performance from Joanne Ellis, is a fire and brimstone Ulsterwoman who enters through the window threatening hell and damnation and handing out leaflets for the Jesus was born on Boxing Day movement which seems to have one member, Madge, who, one suspects, has only a passing relationship with sanity.

Julia is another outcast from reality telling everyone how she lost all her money in Singapore and is reduced to living in a boarding house – and drinking every evening in the club. She is another who was in the previous production, then playing Christine. Here she is a lovely eccentric, slightly dotty old dear living in both reality and her own world.

And throughout it all we see Emma Green as your friendly, neighbourhood whore, Fifi. Just an accepted fact of life of the times.

Add ten club members drifting around and there is a cast of 33, which is a huge number in a small stage and director Emily Armstrong has done well to make the club look no more than busy and to bring out all the running stories and clashes on another great set from Mark Nattrass. He gives us a club with working stairs leading to the upstairs dining room, cellar steps down to the kitchen, the Labour offices seen through the rear window and a club entrance hall.

Remarkable in that Sutton’s stage has no wings and no flies. The club has lamps everywhere which needs a good lighting plot from David Ashton and Armstrong and Armstrong has created a sound design which lifts the drama with a quiet background of 1940s band numbers from the likes of Glen Miller and even Edith Piaf singing La Vie en Rose, which was written in 1945.

It is quite a task for an amateur company to put together a cast of this size and not have a weak performance or prompt in sight. The cast manage to both separate and link to various threads to the extent that a performance of three and a quarter hours hardly seems that long.

Is it a great play? No. There are perhaps too many holes, too much unexplained, such as why is Elizabeth upset when she finds out about Herta being in Ravensbrück, how did she know her and why.

Is it interesting though? Yes. It is a snapshot of a slice of society just after the war, a slice of social history and even if we care little for the characters we do care about what happens, a fascination with the collection of tales unfolding before us. It is a different sort of play, intertwined threads, seen through the life . . . and death of La Vie en Rose. To 21-09-19.

Roger Clarke


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