Neighbourhood Watch

Alan Ayckbourn
Stephen Joseph Theatre Company
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Gulldford

Alexandra Mathie as Hilda

Ayckbourn in this, his 75th produced play, seems not only to be observing human nature but also predicting its future. Written in 2010 before last year’s riots in towns and cities across the country and the complete breakdown of trust between police and vast numbers of the public, the subject matter could have served as a warning—if only is could have been produced in time and people would have paid heed.

As well as his trademark ‘observational humour’, Ayckbourn listens carefully too, and in this play what makes an audience laugh most is hearing (in exaggerated form) all the chat and social interaction they have experienced at the latest dinner party.

We begin at the Bluebell Hill Development where Hilda (Alexandra Mathie) is giving a eulogy to her brother Martin (the length of which caused a few snores to reverberate through the auditorium) so we know from the start that there is a death, before flashing back four months to discover how it all came about.

Hilda and Martin (Matthew Cottle) are enjoying their new house, especially the glorious view unspoiled by fences, and have invited a few neighbours in to a house-warming party, and this is where the warning and worries begin. Former security guard Rod (Terence Booth) points out the nearby council estate and suggests a fence to keep out any intruders with ill-intent, local gossip Dorothy (Eileen Battye) is convinced they are all on drugs and are bristling with knives and / or guns. With these warnings in mind, Martin accosts a youth taking a short cut across their garden, a scuffle takes place and Martin returns carrying a small case. This episode sparks off a whole series of events, the first one being the forming of a neighbourhood watch committee with Martin at the head—and feeling very important.

The first action is to surround the estate with high fences. Now a ‘gated community‘, questions arise and become wilder—how to police the streets, should the vigilantes be armed, ought residents and visitors be searched at the gate for drugs, weapons or alcohol? How to make miscreants behave? Would stocks be a good idea? Unemployed engineer Gareth (Richard Derrington) would be happy to knock them up and how about a pillory?

Every action has a re-action and a reprisal comes in the shape of Martin’s cherished garden gnome being thrown through the window. “This is war,” he states furiously, but Hilda, ever the correct hostess, insists “Tea first—then war.”

Other issues addressed, or at least presented, are suing at the least provocation, the problem of battered wives, the ineptitude of the police force beset by form filling and Gareth’s young, leggy, mini-skirted wife Amy (Frances Grey) being bored out of her mind and looking for fulfillment with “the right man”. At the other end of the equation is tiny, child-like, music teacher Magda (Amy Loughton) married to overbearing bully Luther (Phil Cheadle).

Almost the last word belongs to Amy, who comments that the surrounding fences (now burnt down) gave the appearance of a prison. There is also the suggestion that the people kept in might be no better than those kept out.

A new Ayckbourn play brings in the Guildford audience in droves, and they lapped it all up appreciating the validity of every comment and the reactions which followed. Pertinent to the present day, and expertly performed, this is one of his blacker comedies but surprisingly enjoyable as the action finally escalates to total mayhem.

Touring to Cambridge, Richmond, Bath, Cheltenham, Eastbourne, Watford, Oxford, Windsor, then the Tricycle Theatre London from 10th April to 5th May.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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