Botallack O’Clock, Old Red Lion Theatre

Roger Hilton was an abstract artist working in Cornwall until his death in 1975. As alcoholism and ill health took hold, he confined himself to a basement bedroom and studio, prolifically churning out work in the middle of the night. Modelling Hilton’s experimental work, playwright Eddie Elks (of Mugs Arrows acclaim) has crafted an unconventional dialogue between an ageing, ill man finding late-night solace in his art, and his radio. Elks begins in naturalism, then surreal expressionism sets in like a lucid dream. The mind of an artist is an unusual, hard to pin down thing inventively captured and well performed in Botallack O’Clock, accompanied by the sadness of approaching death and the need to leave a legacy.

Ken McClymont’s set recreates Hilton’s studio/bedroom with excellent accuracy and detail, and a bit of theatre trickery further enhances the surrealism and absurdity. Photographic projections reinforce the authenticity of the set, complete with drying paintings strung around the periphery and paintbrushes everywhere. A 1960’s radio benignly sits centre stage next to a desk with paper and paints. With Dan Frost as an angular Roger folded on the corner of a mattress and the radio next to him, they become equals. The wardrobe on the back wall is also more than it appears, as are the walls themselves. Particularly bizarre but wonderful moments include the old man struggling to be reborn through the wall and Roger’s energetic bogey with a surprise visitor.

The power in this script is the juxtaposition of the profundity and truth in Roger’s dialogue with his radio, and the veering away from reality that happens soon after insomnia slowly wakes him. It surprises and disarms; Roger’s negotiation of this alteration is charming and confessional, provoking reflection on one’s own mortality. But it’s also deliciously funny and sweet, though begins to feel too long about fifteen minutes before the end.

Dan Frost is not an old man, but endows his physicality with the creaky weight of age. This is simply cast off, like his glasses, when he gleefully reflects on his art school days in Paris. Frost’s vocal rhythm is quick and short, forcing the audience to really listen to and process Elks’ script. Frost is complimented by the dulcet tones of George Haynes as the Radio. 

Botallack O’Clock is, in essence, a simple conversation between a man and his subconscious but Elks’ creativity and skill makes it seem like more than that.  There are some delightful surprises along the way and a range of styles are used to examine our intimate relationships with our work, our possessions and our inevitable deaths – a thoughtful, reflective piece is thinly veiled under the humour and Frost’s abrupt delivery. Though we empathise with Roger throughout, all of us are alone in our twilight years, and we are the sole leading players in our own narratives.

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Give Me Your Love, Battersea Arts Centre

I’ve grown up always having pet cats and it’s absolutely true that cats love being in cardboard boxes. I stumbled on a Buzzfeed or similar article recently that says cats seek out boxes or other encloses spaces when they’re stressed or in need of comfort. Humans have similar instincts, really. Think about the last time you were upset or stressed: did you want to hide under a duvet, make a pillow fort or crawl into a small, dark space? Or at least curl up into as small of a ball as you could? Observations and life experience indicate we’re pretty similar to our felines in that way. So it would make sense that someone suffering from grief or trauma might hide in a box and never come out.

Zach (David Woods) does just that with feline stubbornness and rejection of direct human contact. An Iraq veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) living with an unsympathetic wife (convincingly voiced offstage by Jon Haynes), we never see Zach’s face, or anyone else’s, in Give Me Your Love. This quiet, tiny show looks empty but brims with feeling in a sophisticated script, discusses cutting edge medical research without boring the audience and shares the horrors of PTSD that many of our vets are left to contend with, unsupported. A talking cardboard box and a patient drug dealer behind a chained door captivate for about an hour with flawless, sensitive performances and detailed dialogue that delicately balances humour and pathos.

Though it’s easy to focus on Woods as the central character, Haynes wonderfully supports and opposes him as wife Carol and friend/drug dealer Ieuan. Carol opposes Zach’s desire to explore MDMA’s potential to cure his PTSD, Ieuan, not unfamiliar with trauma himself, encourages Zach whilst displaying genuine, moving care for him. There’s a brotherly intimacy here that’s lovely to watch, and is perfectly captured by the pair of actors.

Jacob Williams’ set is super-realistic: there are no metaphors here, just the sparse filth that Zach lives in. The detail is in the tiniest things: the way masking tape curls at the edges, the holes in the box for Zach’s arms, the stains on the walls. The lack of people on stage calls for other means of  visual stimulation, and Williams’ work exceeds this tall order very well. Give Me Your Love is never boring, visually or otherwise.  Sound and light by March Cher-Gibard and Richard Vabre match the set’s naturalism, then toy with the audience’s perception of reality through abstract and expressionistic approaches. It’s a jarring transition, but manages to compliment Zach’s turmoil and experimental recovery instead of feeling stuck on and questions what is objective reality and what is in Zach’s head. 

The inclusion of using Ecstasy in PTSD therapy is fascinating research that doesn’t go too much in depth, but can feel extraneous to Zach’s struggle. It’s not about the recovery, but the day-to-day existence and paralysis that can result from action solders experience on the front line. The dialogue still flows, but the research informs the play rather than being the centre of it. This certainly isn’t a bad thing at all because the script could easily end up a lecture; the focus is very much on Zach’s mental and emotional health. The clever use of humour prevents it from becoming a drag, and exquisitely balances the brutality and debilitation of mental health conditions. This is a vital theatrical contribution to the mental health dialogue and de-stigmatisation, and one executed with delicate, detailed skill and a moving emotional journey. A fantastic watch.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.