It’s quite an experience spending three hours inside the walls of La Vie en Rose, a decaying members club in soho circa 1945. Rodney Ackland’s extraordinary play for a huge cast of forty is likely to divide audiences as the crumbling walls and the lives of it’s drunk inhabitants head towards their inevitable conclusion. If that implies there are no laughs, far from it – everyone behaves delightfully badly as they try to escape reality in this liberal post war refuge.

There are many perfectly pitched performances, not least from Kate Fleetwood, as Christine Foskett who runs the Vie en rose. In her early forties she already suffers from terrible rheumatism and a terror of being alone. Another stunning performance from Charles Edwards as quintessentially public school Hugh, a struggling writer who’s hit desperate times financially and emotionally as his boyfriend Nigel has decided to leave ‘the lies, the squalor, the waste’ and marry a woman.

Having survived the blitz or worse, the motley crew of drinkers include artists, refugees, passing GI’s, a bullying film director, a grand critic and her aide, an heiress and many more who spend the nights drinking, debating or just ‘causing a scene.’ Giving the impression of a ‘slice of dramatic ‘life’ rather than having a clearly defined plot, Absolute Hell feels like a series of scenes, that have a slow, drip, drip effect. Joe-Hill Gibbons production does not try to change it’s slithering nature, as the cast continuously perambulate through the dark corners of the gaping stage. Sometimes they act as a chorus, sometimes as lost individuals but always contributing to the sense that pressure is building and this life cannot be sustained.

In 1952, when Absolute Hell in it’s first incarnation as ‘The Pink Room’ was produced it was branded as degenerate slated by pretty much everyone, resulting in the end of Ackland’s 20 year career. Thirty years and a re-write later it was applauded so perhaps it was just too bold or too close to reality for it’s original audience. It’s lost the power to shock now but Ackland’s play remains challenging as it wanders almost aimlessly forward yet builds an extraordinary poignant picture of lost yet all too familiar characters, finding ways to bear their fragile existence.