There is an era of smart, sassy, homegrown theatre upon us and Alex Vickery-Howe’s Watchlist is a darkly stupendous example.
In an overtly-theatrical two hours, our chief protagonist, Basil Pepper (Gianluca Noble), transitions from a twenty-something introverted nerd to a twenty-something, politically-charged, vegan anarchist.
The tone is set with an opening scene in an interrogation room, where Pepper is being grilled by a sinister investigator, Norman (Matt Hawkins), complete with low-hanging light and black leather gloves that imply impending violence. Norman’s goal is to capture an animal rights activist, Delia (Katherine Sortini), who is alleged to have “recruited” a susceptible Pepper to the cause.
In what becomes a hallmark of this play, the scene jumps to Pepper’s dad’s funeral, where long-time friend, Roger (Eddie Morrison), shakes us from a sense of mysterious intrigue to one of surprising hilarity as he delivers a eulogy best described as ecclesiastical and social slapstick. It is at this point we meet Pepper’s “unmotherly” mum, Marie (Kate O’Reilly), and witness Delia’s first move to connect with Pepper.
What ensues is the struggle between Delia, Roger, Marie, and Norman, as they try to shape, style, and fill the blank canvas that is the hapless, naive, and “undriven” Pepper.
In Act One, Vickery-Howe “peppers” (as it were) the battle of ideologies with lashings of witty dialogue, both evergreen and contemporary, and director, Lisa Harper Campbell, has our players match the sharp and snappy dialogue with exquisite delivery and masterful use of the Bakehouse Theatre space.
In Act Two, there is a noticeable lowering of energy and pace towards the end, as the wheels of the enterprise sink deeper into the heavy marshes of decision-making and torn loyalties. This prompts me to also note sound designer, Sascha Budimski, because while there were some bright, fun moments, the aural depth of some of the introspective and suspenseful scenes was sublime.
As the central character, Noble has a heavy load to bear and manages to draw us in as his pimply awkwardness gives into infatuation, and then builds to reckless activism before dialling down to smouldering subversion. Noble and Morrison conjure intense chemistry with fierce eye contact and a strong sense of bonds of friendship remaining evident, even as both characters orbit widely from the centre of their relationship.
Special mention must be made of Sortini in her role as activist. She has the wonderful ability to be on stage and blend in, on one hand, and then marshal attention-drawing energy when needing to take command of other characters around her. There was also an absolute comfort in her own skin; not a trace of self-consciousness to be had, as she did what she needed to do to achieve her ends.
Likewise, Reilly was feisty and acerbic (she often gets cast this way, for good reason; she owns this space), complemented by the ever-hovering and sometimes domineering Hawkins. While Hawkins was a natural fit as the malevolent investigator, he rose to comedic heights as the undercover bartender.
Watchlist roles out some important ideologies to give them time in the exercise yard, from totalitarianism to militant veganism, but the ultimate focus is on apathy. Delia is repulsed by apathy among activists and that is what pushes her to take extreme measures, while Roger revels in it, occasionally dressing it up with fancy parlance. All characters are flawed, particularly Delia because her black-and-white, intolerant rendering puts distance between her and us. In this way, Watchlist is not a vehicle for training up new activists but rather for encouraging introspection over the gaps between ideals we voice and the actions we live out in daily life.
However, this is one important action that I command you to undertake: buy a ticket and see this show. This is what modern, thoughtful entertainment is all about and it will leave a legacy of much food for thought to mull over while enjoying your next dinner with friends; whether that’s a steak dinner or a vegan feast.
PS Would love the bar to serve Flaming Lamborginis. Perhaps something for the next production!