There was almost a movie of Roger Hilton’s life with John Hurt playing the obscure abstract artist. Thank heavens his story found playwright Eddie Elks, whose portrait of the painter outstrips mere biography. Dazzlingly eloquent yet always just beyond sense, ‘Botallack O’Clock’ is a stunning miniature; surprising, profound and very very funny.
Roger Hilton spent his last decade in self-imposed hermitage, confined to a squalid basement in which he slept and worked, dashing out several poster-paint gouaches in a day. Surrounded by paint pots and whisky bottles, he sits beneath a low-hanging light, chain-smoking and talking to his radio, imagining himself as a guest on ‘Desert Island Discs’. ‘This is a crocodile,’ he says, introducing one of his paintings, ‘Eating my wife.’
At its simplest, ‘Botallack O’Clock’ is a study of the fine line between genius and insanity. The joy is in its strange yet sage philosophy. Hilton tells it as he sees it, rambling through nutty but lucid nuggets in a voice like Alan Bennett’s best Michael Caine impression. The effect is something like ‘Test Match Special’ suffering from heatstroke: woozy and delirious but purring on, always impeccably English.
The production, from Third Man Theatre and the Half Moon’s grassroots fringe company Pilotlight, boasts a phenomenal and uncompromising performance from Dan Frost. Frost inhabits the role far beyond surface impersonation. He manages to find a note of panic beneath Hilton’s jovial contentment. He personifies the artist’s (and TS Eliot’s) proverb that humankind ‘cannot bear very much reality.’
To watch him fishing for his last gherkin is to understand the freedom that isolation can bring. His brow crinkles, NHS glasses slipping down his nose. Two minutes later, he finally skewers it with a paintbrush: ‘Gotcha, you little bugger.’
How much of ‘Botallack O’Clock’s brilliance comes from its writer and how much from its subject is hard to tell. It really doesn’t matter; this is the best kind of buried treasure.