The principle landmarks of the Cornish town of Botallack are The Crowns, two decrepit engine houses which once powered the great pit winches of its defunct tin mines. They totter on wave-smashed cliffs and crumble gradually into the sea. They’re a monument of industry and decline. Eddie Elks’ smart and flyblown play visits a different kind of monument, the great British painter Roger Hilton (played with cantankerous vitality by the stunning Dan Frost), who found his most industrious period at the end of his tether, as the generative power of his talent offered a mirror image of his physical and mental degeneration.
By 1974 Hilton, a key player in the St Ives school of post-war British painting, had drunk himself to near paralysis. Rarely stirring from his bed, he would spend endless days and nights in physical torpor and frantic creative activity. Elks’ play sees him wake in the dead hour between three and four in the morning, performing an earthy self-interrogation in which the purpose of art and the validation of the artist are considered through an ashtray haze of dirt and nicotine. To work when the world sleeps is presented as an act of defiance in the face of oblivion, a sort of pantomime rejection of death played out against the more profound grasp for immortality that is the creation of art. Hilton’s only companion is a sarcastic radio, voiced with great elasticity and wit by Rhys King, which embodies both the artist’s subconscious self-questioning and his fractured mental state.
Botallack O’Clock is biographically inspired, but its real achievement is its bravely phrased exploration of where exactly the intellectual dialogue persists within solitary artistic endeavour. Hilton’s mental disgorging exists somewhere between a wank and a psychotic episode: auto-erotic overtones haunt the squalid room. The Black Dog itself turns up to tease him with a pity fuck, elsewhere Hilton fondles King Lear and frigs at snatches of half-remembered rhyme and song. A montage of the paintings Hilton created in these final years completes the paradox of the great masturbator locked in a great and fecund creative act.
Frost’s performance is fascinating and gruesome, as he prods at a pickle with the tip of a paintbrush or hollers for the wife he has painted in the jaws of a shoddy crocodile. The play is as funny as it is literate, but just as Hilton argues in one of his many excellent rants, the words are somehow less important than the pictures, than the image Elk has developed of a man and of an artist. Elks’ direction is as assured as his writing, and barring a flashback to Hilton’s youth which feels jarringly pastel compared to the filthy introspection that surrounds it, Botallack O’Clock is a powerful success.