Review: Neighbourhood Watch
In Alan Ayckbourn's latest comedy, suburbanites take up arms.
Thu Dec 8 2011
Photograph: Karl Andre
Neighbourhood Watch at 59E59
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5
"First tea. Then war!" That becomes the rallying cry of the Bluebell Hill Development, where petty crime, police inactivity and a nearby low-income housing estate generate enough fear to fuel a Republican convention in Neighbourhood Watch, 72-year-old Alan Ayckbourn's 75th (!) play, part of the Brits Off Broadway series. Considerably darker and nowhere near as farcical as some of his better-known works (The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular), it cleverly though not-so-subtly illustrates how fear and a minor amount of power can turn an ordinary community-watch group into virtual fascists.
Pious religiosity also fires Ayckbourn's indignation, as middle-aged Christian siblings Martin (Matthew Cottle) and Hilda (Alexandra Mathie) move into a new home, which is quickly vandalized. (Martin's cherished lawn gnome, Monty, gets decapitated in the process.) Turning the other cheek means residents retaliate by building fences, issuing IDs for entry, even building stocks for public punishment, and their intolerance and need for control spread to people's private lives. Martin becomes their messianic leader, albeit one tempted by the neighborhood trollop (Frances Grey), who brings out the Lady Macbeth in Hilda. It's no spoiler to note that things end tragically; the show opens with Hilda dedicating a park to her late brother.
Usually, the more pain Ayckbourn inflicts on his characters, the more ferociously funny his plays become, but despite its baleful undertones, Neighbourhood Watch is rarely anything but quaint. Of course, in Ayckbourn quaint can be amusing, even if the playwright muddies the payoff to make a point. The writer-director elicits appealing performances from Cottle, Mathie, Grey and Terence Booth as a combative retiree, but these characters remain vessels debating societal ills. They and their arguments keep to safe, familiar territory.