Pip Utton gives a resplendent performance as Francis Bacon, “that dreadful man who paints those horrible pictures”, as Margaret Thatcher once said, in an entrancing journey down the sleazy, evil-smelling alleyways of Soho and his psyche.

Bacon, regarded by many as the greatest British artist since JMW Turner, the English romantic landscape painter of the 18th and 19th centuries, was born in Dublin in 1909 and died in Madrid in 1992.

Whipped as a boy by his father on whose Irish farm he worked, he had a penchant for the stableboys, sometimes having sex with them and sometimes being beaten by them too. 

“It was a very normal childhood,” Utton says atonally, surrounded on his lonely barstool by champagne bottles and a light blue 1970s landline telephone, whose callers he variously invites to gossipy dinners or tells to “f*** off!”

Pip Utton in character

We follow the amoral “old poof” from the Colony Room Club in Soho, meeting its fearsome lesbian owner, Muriel Belcher – who called him her daughter while he called her his mother – and some of its artistic and bohemian denizens such as “Foreskin”. From there, we bound on to Berlin where he bedded his uncle before being ditched for a chambermaid.

Then it’s on to Paris where we hear of his encounter with “a dark-skinned man” he picked up in Montmartre before he returns to London where he matter-of-factly recalls blow-jobs and “being buggered by a couple of sailors” he had picked up in the East End.

In between, he throws paint on the ceiling, on the floor and over the furniture, as well as, happily for posterity, on various canvases.

“Enough to keep me in champagne and oysters,” he reflects, as he shuffles, increasingly sozzled, about the stage.
Bacon’s licentious lifestyle, his acid wit and bar-room banter are warmly depicted by Utton, 69, from Somerset, in an unsparing performance against a mellow, jazz-filled backdrop.

By the end there is a strong sense that the glorious gore of Bacon’s paintings was inextricably linked with his gory relationships and abusive upbringing.

“Cheerio,” he repeats, as he sips a never-ending supply of champagne, transporting him into oblivion. “Cheerio.”

Bacon Pleasance Courtyard until August 13