Friday, January 15, 2016

'Botallack O'Clock' at the Old Red Lion, 14th January 2016

3am. Acrid cigarette smoke fills the air as the great artist pours himself another shot. Hunched into a tangle of long-limbs and peering through murkily smeared specs under a 60 watt bulb, he looks Gollum-ish This is Dan Frost and Eddie Elks' interpretation of obscure abstract artist Roger Hilton: a misanthropic genius plagued by hallucinations, alcoholism and sleep deprivation.

Told over the course of a messy night-time hour, we first meet Hilton unconscious on a grubby mattress sitting in an island of filth. Scrunched up daubings dot the floor, as do the corpses of whiskey bottles and ashy fag end deposits. As someone who's lived in this particular filth, I can testify for the set design's accuracy of both sight and smell.

Hilton talks in neatly clipped fragments: an archetypal English gentlemen inexplicably planted waist deep in surreal misery. Before too long his radio chirrups to life, rhythmically glowing as it quizzes him in an ersatz edition of Desert Island Discs. Hilton takes this in bemused stride, swatting at the radio with a paintbrush whenever it's vulgar or ill-mannered. The rest of the show chronicles the mindset of a man who's neither asleep nor awake, being assailed by memories of days as a Parisian student, dancing with a giant bear costume or merely trying to fish an errant gherkin from the bottom of a jar.

Above all, Botallack O'Clock is funny. Not in the sense that Hilton is a figure of fun, or that his circumstances are inherently amusing, but in the twisted and chaotic perspective that the show offers. Despite being assaulted from all sides by misbehaving appliances and (later in the show) bears he maintains the same broad stoicism and tetchiness with what he has to deal with. Not much can phase him - a suit of 'don't give a fuck' booze-soused armour allowing him to overcome whatever comes his way.

For my money, the key to the show lies in Hilton's instructions to viewers of art. He advises anyone trying to understand a painting to approach it with the "corner of your eye" and to react with instinct and emotion rather than stifle things with over analysis. 

We see a similar in Hilton's drawings; thick brushstrokes that capture the platonic ideal of crocodiles, elephants and women. There's a mordant moment where he recalls someone asking him whether a painting was by one of his children - yet though there's a common surface aesthetic, a child couldn't produce works of such clarity and clear composition.

On some level, there's a disconnect between the vibrant art and the static artist. The pieces festooned on the walls of his studio are yells of primary colour and motion, while Hilton is a rumpled laundry pile of a man, lit so drably he may as well be monochrome. Yet as the play spirals into abstraction itself, we begin to see the spark that lurks deep underneath his thick carapace, the simple urge to create even as your body and mind begin to succumb.

Essentially a one-man show (save the chatty radio and bear), Dan Frost turns in a magnificently rounded performance. By the time the hour is up you have a sense of insight into Hilton and what makes him tick. Highlights are his supreme control of body language, beginning horizontal and slouched, shuffling about like a puppet with its strings cut. Later, as the action picks up, he unfolds to his full stature, peering out at us in the audience with peevish aggression.

To say too much more about what transpires would spoil some of the funner developments. Yet as Hilton crawls back into his soiled sheets, leaving behind half-finished sketches, a fug of smoke and a real bad attitude, the audience has been privy to an appropriately jagged portrait of an artist who made abstraction his core philosophy.

A wonderful little production.

Botallack O'Clock is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 6th February. Tickets here.

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