(Review by Tulis McCall)
Alan Ayckbourn must be some sort of planetary treasure. Seriously, if the Martians arrive anytime soon, I will send them right over the pond to the doorstep of Sir Ayckbourn with the firm declaration, “This is one of the best we have to offer.”
This is Ayckbourn’s 75th play. As in three score and fifteen. It is not quite what I had in mind, but it has certainly left me thinking.
Hilda (Alexandra Mathie) opens the play with a eulogy of sorts for her brother, Martin (Matthew Cottle). According to Hilda, Martin came very close to walking on water, and his unfortunate demise has left her to carry his torch of justice. Martin’s torch, as it turns out, shone brightly. It shone so brightly that it turned into a sort of conflagration of Christian self–righteousness that eventually did him in.
Ayckbourn takes us back a few months when Martin and Hilda had just moved in to Bluebell Hill Development, a bit too near the Housing Estate (read The Projects) for their liking, but they were willing to give it time. Their view, except as interrupted by the same Estate, was splendid. When they host their first neighborhood welcome, however, the event is interrupted by a young man carrying a small black case climbing over a neighbor’s wall and heading for the Estate. When challenged by Martin they boy flees, leaving the case, but not before delivering a good kick to the Martin’s shin. With a few neighbors in attendance, the conversation turns to what might be going on in the Estates and in England in general. Half the population was carrying guns or knives or both, and it was too bad the Iron Curtain ever came down. What was going on down there was revolting and had taken its toll on the local Police who had been rendered powerless.
Naturally it isn’t long before Martin invites his neighbors to form a Neighbourhood Watch to make certain that whatever is going on at the Estate stays there. At first the tidy little Watch Committee lacks in logistics what it more than makes up for in spirit. They are jolly and jaded at the same time. But when their first meeting is interrupted by an act of vandalism, Martin leaps to the head of the brigade like a man who hasn’t eaten red meat in a month. Hilda declares tea ready, and following that, Martin declares they will be at war with any and all outsiders.
Committees and sub-committees spring up: The Bluebell Hill Residence Committee, the Environment Committee, the Morality Committee, Marketing and Press Committee, Discipline and Punishment Committee. Fencing and barbed wire appear. ID cards are distributed. Stocks are built and placed in the ornamental roundabout.
To add a little spice to the mix, the neighbors’ intramural activities begin to unravel just at the time they are ratcheting up their defenses. Adultery, sexual abuse, a bit of neighborly terrorizing, assault: push cometh to shove, and these folk become the very people against whom they were guarding themselves.
There are odd rough edges to the text that seems, like its subjects, to wander off course from time to time. In the play’s final moments you realize that the character who is at the head of the parade is Hilda, which is not obvious during the telling. Martin may be the brawn, but Hilda is the brains, and this factoid got lost in the detritus of the tale.
The actors, however, are far from lost. Each performance is spot on. Mathie and Cottle lead this lunatic band with a firm grasp on the insanity with which they are dabbling. Eileen Battye (Dorothy), Terence Booth (Rod), Phil Cheadle (Luther), Richard Derrington (Gareth), Frances Grey (Amy), and Amy Loughton (Magda) bring the neighbors to life with precision and compassion. These characters are rogues traveling in cloaks that make them appear normal. No one escapes alive and well from this sad corner of the planet.
The upshot is that Neighbourhood Watch is one of those stories that stays with you. It sticks to your ribs and makes you look in the mirror with a more critical eye. Ayckbourn seems to be saying that it is not, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” but rather, “We each carry the seeds of fascism and anarchy, and the best we can hope for is that they stay dormant.”
Tread softly, leave the big stick at home, and hope that your fellow citizens do the same. It’s the best you can do.
"Ayckbourn, ..., draws winning comic performances from his talented cast."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"There are laughs and insights and it’s worth checking out."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"It's a must for Ayckbourn fans."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Alan Ayckbourn is back in top form."
David Sheward for Back Stage
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