Botallack O’Clock is an abstract portrait in the dramatic medium of the painter Roger Hilton, a pioneer of abstract painting in Britain in the post war years of the last century. The play premiered in 2011 in London, was part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012 and travelled to New York for a season in the Brits Off-Broadway Festival in 2013. It is currently playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London until 6th February.
Writer Eddie Elks has crafted a fascinating window through which is revealed the creative imaginings of the artist in the later stages of his life. Elks says in the programme notes that much of the text has been sourced from Hilton’s letters and interviews, and that authentic voice is clearly heard throughout.
When the audience enters the space, Hilton is already on the set. In fact he is in the bed that has becomes his entire world. In his last two years of life he was confined to bed, an invalid with maladies arising from alcoholism. The beginning scene starts ever so slowly as the artist stirs himself to a voiceover quoting Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch. Slowly and silently the figure unfolds, turns in the bed to a sitting position and pours himself a drink. And then the muse is awake and actor Dan Frost becomes the artist.
From this point on the play travels through scenes that can only be alive in the mind of the artist. He has a conversation with a radio he disciplines with a tap from his paintbrush, which is never far from his hands. He also reverts to his youth and bounds around the stage with youthful enthusiasm and, in a later scene, dances with a bear. A particular favourite twisted view of the creative mind of Hilton comes in a moment of rebirth, engineered by the tip of his brush through one of his drawings.
Dan Frost is remarkable as Roger Hilton. In essence this is a one-man play. George Haynes is the voice of the radio and embodies the bear suit, both of which he executes very well but Frost is predominately the one man on stage. The audience is riveted to his every move from the first infinitesimal flexing of the muscles in his back until he sits, glass in one hand and paintbrush in the other. He has still to speak one word and yet there is already a clear statement of character. The words he then exchanges with the radio and shouts to his absent wife bring with them an authoritative understanding of Hilton’s attitude to life and his art.
Eddie Elks, the playright, is also the director of this production and his deep knowledge of the subject ensures a very clear picture of the artist in his time and place. It is evident in the totality of the production that the clarity of his vision has guided all facets of the design.
The set design by Ken McClymont is a realistic depiction of an invalid’s room. All that Hilton requires in his life are at hand, and the space is suitably untidy. The composition of the walls is ingenious, enabling lighting effects which climax eventually in the impactful rebirth scene (see above).
For the bulk of the play the atmosphere is very dark, as befits a room lit by one overhead bulb in the dead of night. Christopher Nairne’s lighting though is much more than this. It casts shapes and shadows for the actor to play with and has a character of its own.
Similarly, Liam Welton has a larger palette than usual to play with in his sound design. The multiple elements of voice over, radio voice, music and special effects are all interwoven with skill.
The strength of this production however is in the sum of all these parts and this is due to the skill of Eddie Elks as writer/director. All facets of this production meld together to make a complex and entertaining whole.
For only 2 more days the London Art Fair at the Business Design Centre in Islington is showing several of the artworks of Roger Hilton. It would be worth visiting the art fair before seeing Botallack O’Clock, but even without the double serve of Hilton, this play is highly entertaining and a valuable work in furthering an understanding of the creative mind.