We often think only of fossil fuels as the prime cause of climate change. In Watchlist, the unlikely hero, Basil Pepper, discovers the true impact of the global livestock industry and leaves us all with food for thought.
Basil Pepper is in his early twenties and lives in a world of his own. His closest associate is his bearded dragon lizard, his hobby is painting Orc figurines. He can’t tell you the name of the Prime Minister; he reads the paper for the crossword and the Fred Basset cartoons. When pressed, he says he likes Peter Jackson and chicken nuggets. Even his mother is avoiding him. He is as mindful as plankton until a Eureka moment at his father’s funeral when he meets Delia, a young woman who knows the world’s not right and is on a mission to fix it.
Watchlist, Alex Vickery-Howe’s engagingly hyperactive new comic thriller, produced by South Australian Playwrights’ Theatre, is a mordant study of the Watchers and the Watched. Inspired by Delia, Basil joins the campaign against industrial-scale livestock agriculture. “Meat”, as Morrissey said in one of his more lucid moments, “is Murder.” And in their struggle against the “dead cow industry” Basil and Delia have moved from being ‘protesters’ to becoming ‘activists’- attracting the detailed, covert attention of Agent Norman Gould in his trench coat and myriad aliases.
Directed at pace by Lisa Harper Campbell, Watchlist, especially in Act One, fizzes almost to overflowing with wit and mercurial polemic. It is a lively stew of Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Roald Dahl, 12 Monkeys, Black Mirror and The Young Ones. Vickery-Howe garnishes his text with pop culture name-checks from Grease to DiCaprio.
The set is simple and functional – bean bags and low tables for slouching, high back chairs for interrogations – all side and top-lit with Stephen Dean’s increasingly phantasmagoric lighting tints. The music, a tasty playlist of Neneh Cherry, Tori Amos, Boney M and REM samples, propels and energises the action, as does the excellent surging, pulsing, often brooding, ambient sound design from Sascha Budimski.
The performances are terrific, capturing Vickery-Howe’s crackling, deadpan comic dialogue as well as the extended – as someone calls them – SparkNotes on CO2 emissions, resource depletion, global warming and other planetary deterioration, in Act Two.
Gianluca Noble is excellent as Basil, boyishly innocent and then attentive and engaged, even as he is being interrogated in his plush velvet chameleon suit. Katherine Sortini’s Delia is credibly committed and her example is a challenge to the audience – when you no longer tolerate cruelty and apathy, then what has to change? How far would you go to save the world?
As Roger, Basil’s faux sophisticate housemate, Eddie Morrison delivers a fearlessly funny parody of our own meagre efforts at token change -whether sorting our yellow bin re-cycling, or fussing over Lean Cuisine. He is preposterous, but as the play suggests, so, mostly, are we.
Katie O’Reilly is memorably droll as Basil’s unsentimental mother Marie; only gradually do we realise her own radical life changes. And Matt Hawkins is both diverting as the agent of disguise, posing as incompetent bartender, Artemis Vermouth, and sinister as Norman Gould, the complacently servile keeper of the Watch.
Alex Vickery-Howe’s Watchlist is amusing, ambitious, provocative, and a sharp reminder that the changes we know we need to make as global citizens will not be easy, even if we agree to them.
This production eases us in with its comedy, but leaves us staring at a plateful of unpalatable options.
Watchlist is playing at The Bakehouse until June 12.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.