Botallack O’Clock, Old Red Lion, review: ‘Extremely funny’

Botallack O'Clock

Botallack O'Clock - Credit: Archant

Caroline David finds this surreal portrait of a flawed artistic genius in mental crisis to be fearlessly funny, if slightly sketchy.

‘Man’s subconscious is not the ideal companion,’ observes the pioneering post- Second World War abstract artist Roger Hilton at the start of Eddie Elks’ wildly inventive, anarchic play Botallack O’Clock.

Like Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, Eddie Elks’ surreal play is set during the early hours of the morning when insomnia often visits the terminally depressed. In his last years, Hilton incarcerated himself in the basement of his Cornish Botallack home. As a study of alcoholism and the fine line between genius and insanity, it’s a taut, fearless 70-minute two-hander. Elks presents a no-frills portrait of Hilton as a man with a cigarette permanently dangling from his lips, who thinks nothing of repeatedly summoning family members by ringing a bell for fresh supplies of booze and poster paints. Hilton’s sneering alter-ego is dramatised in the form of a radio which taunts him with mocking laughter, huskily sung odes to the sea, and jaunty questioning about Hilton’s life in the style of Desert Island Discs.

Confidently directed by Elks himself, the play is particularly astute on the matter of inspiration. At one point, Hilton sits as if conjuring a shamanic vision: ‘Wait, wait,’ he insists before starting on a new canvas. How much of these insights come transposed from recorded interviews or from Elks’ imagination is unclear. Dan Frost is charismatic and oddly endearing as the arrogant artist with a deft line in caustic put-downs. In one wonderful scene, George Haynes, who voices Radio, doubles up as a mute, gaping-mouthed, emasculated bear that dances out of a cupboard, then infuriates Hilton as he fails to read the part of Cordelia to his Lear. Details of Hilton’s life are ultimately too sketchy and the soul of the man is not captured with sufficient depth. But it’s extremely funny.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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