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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