Third Man Theatre have brought Botallack O’Clock back to London after five years, and it is an absorbing experience, perfect in performance and execution. Depicting a sleepless night during the later years of the abstract artist Roger Hilton, this piece is no biographical record. Instead, it forms a shifting portrait of Hilton as a man, artist, alcoholic and cynical romantic, drawn from letters and firsthand accounts, and stages them in a frank but dreamlike way.
Waking to find the audience before him and a conversational radio beside him, Hilton is bleary, sage and wry, animated brilliantly by Dan Frost. He speaks like a poet, but swiftly cuts through his musings with a flat “Balls.” The character is honest and dishonest, bearing no illusions as to his wretched confinement and alcoholic state yet also believing in the integrity of his dedication to work, while he continually gets distracted. He painfully hauls himself around his bed and hunches over his table, surrounded by whiskey and half smoked cigarettes, painting crude nudes and exotic animals, showing off his work and his shopping lists with equal satisfaction. He tries to control his radio, voiced with a controlled glee by George Haynes, scolding it when it asks him a question he deems uninteresting, and dancing round the room, suddenly a dashing young man, when it asks him about Paris. Frost plays Hilton with such precision and control, without once overplaying or doing a disservice to the character.
The piece draws a direct parallel between him and King Lear, a fading, frustrated old man who is trying to make sense of his shrinking world, reducing his interpretations to the base and strange. He’s frustrated with his inability to decide, flicking the radio on and off throughout, trying to remember what captures and entrances him. The script and direction is wonderfully paced, not too languorous or quick, funny in the same lonely way Becketts works are, bringing to life this endless world of 3am’s and 4am’s the artist finds himself paralysed between.
Ken McClymont’s set works in harmony with the Old Red Lion to bring to life Hilton’s confines, communicating its sparsity and messiness. During the more abstract episodes elements become more playful without ever being whimsical, juggling with the reality of the space and adding depth to the circuitous mind that has prowled around this room for years. The lighting and sound similarly keep the space enclosed but fluid with a very gentle touch, and all intertwine wonderfully to pull a frantic yet focused world around Hilton, reflecting his mind back at him.
The only complaint would be that a small slideshow of his work was part of the end of the show, and it didn’t need that at all, as the show told you about him in a closer, more sinuous and entirely different manner that reality had no part in. It would be fine to play after the show while the audience leave, but it broke the atmosphere wide open for me.
Other than that this piece is incredibly strong; meticulously brought to life on every level by a talented team, and equally funny and thoughtful throughout.