By Jacob Freda
One of the few plays to escape the recent curse of Covid-19 is Night Watch, the latest contribution to Ooook’s long-standing tradition of adapting the novels of Terry Pratchett for the stage. While the recording is no longer available to watch, this production is still certainly worth discussing as an achievement in itself. To put on a play during a pandemic is one thing, but to put on something of this scale under such conditions is truly remarkable.
The play concerns Vimes, the gruff sergeant-at-arms of the city of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, who is accidentally sent back in time while apprehending a serial killer. When he awakens, he meets his younger self, then a new recruit, and assumes the identity of a deceased sergeant in an attempt to take back the corrupt and authoritarian police force. It is a story whose themes concern the role of the state, the dangers of totalitarianism, and what it means to be a good police officer – in this sense, it is surprisingly political.
The play is bookended by two filmed segments. Whether these were the result of necessity (the lead actor was forced to isolate just before filming ended) or a creative decision, they are let down by their disappointing sound quality and editing, though admittedly the crew was forced to make the best of a bad situation.
The play itself is much better executed. While its pacing could have benefited from a more generous use of music and sound, the lighting and technical elements are creatively realised, including a couple of moments of legitimately clever camera play. James Goodall and his tech team should be heartily commended.
Based on the novel by Terry Pratchett, one might expect Night Watch to take the form of an off-the-wall comedy. Yet what surprised me most were the play’s not infrequent moments of seriousness: during one heated confrontation about the nature of social revolutions, one character memorably yells, “People die and nothing changes!”. One moment involving Dylan Hicks’ policeman discovering his own role in facilitating a torture ring was so convincingly acted that it left me unsettled.
The jokes themselves often land – one featuring a royal taster questioning “what if the real poison was the friends we made along the way” made me legitimately howl – but there are simply far too few of them to safely term this play a ‘comedy’. The result is a tone that is often dissonant: viewers expecting a silly Pratchett comedy will be surprised by the play’s consistently heavy themes, while those looking for a serious critique of authoritarianism will likely be put off by the occasional detours into broad humour. Both are executed well, but they never truly mesh.
With a cast of 21 (!), it is impressive there are no weak links, although I did start to question the introduction of yet more characters once the two-hour mark was passed. The ensemble works well together, and while I cannot mention everyone, there are plenty of standouts: Matthew Redmond shows his natural comedic prowess in his performance as a time-travelling monk; Hannah Lyndon and John Reeves both exhibit effortless stage presence; Jacob Cook does much with a small character, showcasing some hilarious characterisation; and Matthew McConkey and Ollie Stanton both excel at physical comedy.
As the play’s two antagonists, Rob Morrisey and Ella Al-Khalil Coyle both shine. Morrisey’s composed performance as the secret police chief Captain Swing manages to be legitimately intimidating, while Coyle steals the show as psychotic serial killer Carcer. Her performance is both eerily sadistic and captivatingly gleeful – it’s clear she is having the most fun out of everyone.
Taking the lead role is Rian Mullan, who is charged with carrying much of the show. He is the anchor around which all the other characters operate, and it is to Mullan’s credit that he is able to perform such a role without coming across as stale. For Vimes is no conventional fish out of water protagonist – he is quick to anger, and Mullan’s frequent outbursts of fury always feel genuine and earned. Mullan manages to convey a natural aura of authority, and while it takes him a few scenes to settle into his character, once the plot is established he is able to have some fun with it.
The play’s greatest flaw, however, is its length: clocking in at three hours with an interval, it is simply too long. Some judicious cutting of the script would have been appreciated, as well as a slightly tighter pace with some of the scenes, which at times fall prey to slow cues and laboured line deliveries.
In the end, Night Watch impressed me. I’m not sure whose idea it was to produce a three-hour play with a cast of twenty during the height of a pandemic, but they certainly managed it: to their immense credit.
Image Credit: Ooook! Productions