Review by Naomi Cardwell
Expendables. Red Shirts. NPC’s. Whatever you call the canonical cannon fodder of plays throughout history, they’re there, dying and largely unmourned so the plot may advance. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead leveraged an entire play and hit film out of a single line of Hamlet which unceremoniously banished two characters to an uncelebrated off-stage demise. More recently, slang has adapted the term “NPC” into a handy dismissal for strangers we cross swords with in everyday life. With roots in video game play, “non-player characters” are now the nuisances who jostle us on the train, walk through our selfies, and order the last choc-chip-banana muffin at our favourite cafe seemingly out of spite.
Of course, everyone is someone else’s NPC.
Brawl Along the Watchtower picks up and plays with the NPC theme, as two castle guards in a fantasy setting debate the tantalising life-preserving quality of cowardice as battle rages below. “Main characters” come and go, dying valiantly and ranting eloquently, while the humble watchmen become convinced they want no part in courtly valour if all it leads to is their deaths. After all, who gets paid enough these days? It’s a script bursting with meta, as the watchmen turn trope into superstition in their struggle to survive: never show anyone a picture of your girl if you want to live through the next scene, and avoid the “F” word (Fate) at all costs!
Theatre duo Ruth and Tim Gilmour are seasoned and gifted performers whose timing, presence and chemistry set alight the Pythonesque in-jokes throughout this piece, leaving us quoting lines and cackling long after the end. If you love fantasy, Shakespeare, or have ever felt like an NPC, you’ll love every bit of this show. As a play in which nearly all the action occurs off-stage, the piece leans heavily on its dialogue to keep the pace galloping along, and it does stumble occasionally over flat moments such as a card game which goes a little too long. Fortunately it recovers capably with more than enough wittiness and hilarious physical comedy throughout, and a surprisingly poignant turn at the end.
Alexander Loadman steals every scene he’s in, delivering ludicrously delicate soliloquies, rousing calls to arms, and, of course, dying magnificently (and repeatedly) as fate demands. He fits in seamlessly, energising the piece with every appearance. The lighting, by Darren Thao and Doug Montgomery, feels like a series of magic tricks designed to transport the tiny theatre to another world, with a particularly delightful piece of work around the watchmen’s handheld lamp.
Babble Productions’ years of work in children’s theatre is evident in this play, and the only thing missing as far as I was concerned was the sound of children’s squeals of laughter and their parents’ guffaws at the more grown-up jokes. Melbourne Fringe is for everyone, and this play champions that sentiment. Beginning at 5pm and with a running time of one hour, this is the kind of play you catch with the family or geek out over with your child-at-heart friends before dinner in the mild Melbourne evening, giggling together over those bloody bark-eaters - and maybe treating those pesky NPC’s with just a little extra grace.