This quote from a poem by W.S. Graham called Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch, provides the title and setting for Botallack O’Clock, written and directed by Eddie Elks. First staged by Third Man Theatre in 2011, the play is an intriguing and often surreal glimpse into the mind of abstract artist Roger Hilton, who died in 1975 after several years of self-imposed isolation in his Cornwall cottage.
Towards the end of his life, Hilton produced most of his work at night. Botallack O’Clock is based on recordings, interviews and Hilton’s letters to his wife, and reconstructs one such night as he drags himself out of bed and waits for inspiration to strike. The result is a disjointed, often disturbing, and yet oddly compelling hour of theatre, as Hilton talks to his radio in his own unique version of Desert Island Discs, flamboyantly reenacts his time in Paris, and dances with a bear that bursts out of his wardrobe.
And yet, while it’s not a particularly comfortable piece to watch, portraying as it does a brilliant but unstable mind, there’s plenty of humour here too – like Hilton’s unexpected (and occasionally foul-mouthed) rants about everything from Francis Bacon to Blue Peter, his ongoing battle to remove the last remaining pickle from a jar, and his distress when he realises his wife’s stolen ‘the more interesting’ of his two apples.
Dan Frost is captivating as the troubled recluse, in an intense and utterly committed performance. Under the dim glow of a low-hanging lamp, he veers from dry wit to violent passion, portraying both the hunched invalid and his energetic younger self. He’s at times repellant, at others pitiable, but always fascinating to watch. Frost is accompanied by the voice of George Haynes as Hilton’s increasingly antagonistic radio, which questions, challenges and provokes him throughout the play.
The play concludes with a brief slideshow of Hilton’s art – much of which has been referenced in the script – and shots of the artist’s cluttered room, which designer Ken McClymont has faithfully recreated on set. Between this and Frost’s utter embodiment of the central role, it’s easy to feel you’ve just spent an hour in the company of Hilton himself.
Botallack O’Clock is a strange play; there’s no arguing with that. What begins as slightly unusual soon descends rapidly into the totally surreal, and often unsettling – and yet it’s almost impossible to look away. And regardless of whether you know anything about Roger Hilton or not before entering the theatre, it’s also a brief but fascinating insight into the life and work of a unique and endlessly complex character.
Review by Liz Dyer
“Everyone else is asleep. Not me. Not you. Not yet… No, not yet.”
Botallack O’Clock is a funny, moving and thought-provoking journey into the creative mind of one of the most unique voices in postwar British art, Roger Hilton CBE.
Having premiered at the Half Moon, Herne Hill in 2011, Botallack O’Clock transferred to the Edinburgh Festival 2012 and then on to the 59E59 Theaters, New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival 2013. Botallack O’Clock now returns to London by popular demand for a 4 week run at the Old Red Lion.
Written and Directed by Eddie Elks
Presented by Third Man Theatre
12th January – 6th February 2016
Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30pm
Saturday matinees 2.30pm
Sunday matinees 3pm
Old Red Lion Theatre
418 St John Street
London, EC1V 4NJ