Wednesday 27 January 2016

Absolute Hell

In 2013 I went to a matinee performance, at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, of Too Clever By Half, the hectic Russian comedy by Alexander Orlovsky, translated by Rodney Ackland. It was unforgettable, for an odd reason.

What happened was this. Before the start of the play a tannoy announcement told the audience that owing to the indisposition of one of the actors his (unspecified) role would be shared between the rest of the cast. The role, it turned out, was a cough and a spit - the household factotum whose sole function was to announce the arrival of various other characters. It wasn't until quite late in the first half that the established lead characters, one by one, each took turns to appear in the factotum's green apron and owlish glasses, and to deliver his lines (while still, as it were, 'in character' as themselves). This earned a few laughs.

Later in the play I had a profoundly unsettling experience of Kafkaesque intensity when I gradually became aware that the cast, huddled together on the far side of the set, were talking about me. Improvising, that is, a description of a middle-aged chap in blue jeans, white shirt and dark linen jacket sitting in the front row, and looking more and more alarmed. This got a lot of laughs.

Then suddenly from behind me (the Royal Exchange is a modern theatre in the round) appeared an actor dressed as a postman, with a package addressed to me by name, for which I had to sign. The package contained a few pages of script and a pair of owlish glasses. What followed I can't clearly recall - although in the intermission I found myself surrounded by friendly Mancunians who said it really was one of the funniest things they'd ever seen. The theatrical company  responsible - Told By an Idiot - are very good at this kind of thing, and I'd love to see it happen again to anyone else but me. My companion was the designer of that show, and I've yet to forgive her.

But back to Rodney Ackland. He once wrote a brilliant play set in a wartime Soho drinking den, called Absolute Hell, which was televised by the BBC back in the days when the corporation still had a commitment to drama. It's available to view online, and I can't recommend it too highly. A fabulous cast, a brilliant production and a rancid two-hour slice of desperate bohemian living. You won't see anything better this year. Click here to view.

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