Neighbourhood Watch: World Premiere Reviews
Neighbourhood Watch (by Michael Billington)
One of Alan Ayckbourn's least appreciated qualities is the sharpness of his social antennae. At the very moment when there is a lot of political babble about a "broken society" and the need for a vigorous communal response, Ayckbourn comes up with a new play - which happens to be his 75th - that confronts the danger of leaving law and order to volunteer vigilantes. It is refreshing to report that the piece is highly ambitious, biliously funny and right on the button.
As always, Ayckbourn tackles ideas through character. In this case the focus is on Martin and Hilda, devoutly Christian siblings who move into a nice, middle-class area fringed by a run-down estate. So, when Martin catches a young intruder, he quickly forms a Neighbourhood Watch committee whose members include a paranoid ex-security officer, a congenital female snooper and a much-cuckolded engineer. Having led the way in creating a virtually crime-free gated community, with its own security system and punitive medieval stocks, Martin becomes a national hero lauded by the Daily Mail. But, almost inevitably, this ideal world is threatened by a mix of sexual appetite, sibling jealousy and irrepressible violence.
Some of the situations and people strike a familiar chord: the have-a-go hero is out of Man of the Moment and the security man is a replica of Harvey in Season's Greetings. But in his 75th play a man is entitled to repeat himself. What really counts is Ayckbourn's ability to spot the fundamental flaw in Cameron's "big society": that idealists with good intentions often end up doing untold harm. Martin may be a practising pacifist driven by faith, and his sister may genuinely believe in the traditional concept of evil, but both turn out to be slightly sad, unfulfilled figures whose well-meaning interventions have disastrous consequences. Ibsen made a similar point in The Wild Duck, but Ayckbourn develops it with humour, compassion and his own brand of wry observation.
As the siblings, Matthew Cottle and Alexandra Mathie also give excellent performances, in the author's own production, by carefully declining to make moral judgments on the characters: he radiates a baffled astonishment at the ways of the world while she is all bustling kindness. There is also rich support from Terence Booth as the barking security man who thinks strongly wielded baseball bats are the answer to local crime, and from Frances Grey as the engineer's wife who offers constant sexual temptation. Aside from an overlong opening monologue, this is a cracking good Ayckbourn that shows he still has an intuitive understanding of the flaws in the social fabric.
(The Guardian, 14 September 2011)
Neighbourhood Watch (by Charles Spencer)
This is Alan Ayckbourn’s 75th play and the dramatist is as bang on the money as ever. Though written before the recent riots, Neighbourhood Watch seems eerily prescient about law, public order and feral youth. It is also as black a play as even Ayckbourn, that master of dark comedy, has ever written.
The action is set on a middle-class housing development to which Martin and his sister Hilda have moved. They are middle-aged Christians, both unmarried, utterly respectable, and sex never seems to have played a part in either of their lives.
There is a fly in the ointment, however. Just down there is a sink estate, rife, as one paranoid resident puts it, with “drugs, violence and incest”. Many homeowners have erected fences to keep out the yobs, but the local community decides that more drastic action is required, especially in the absence of the police, who seem either unable or unwilling to help.
So a Neighbourhood Watch scheme is established, which, though founded with the best of intentions, soon resembles a repressive tyranny.
In flights of sharp satire, Ayckbourn shows these mostly well-meaning middle-class people establishing a system of checkpoints and security passes, as well as taking a prurient interest in the private lives of their neighbours. Stocks are even set up on an ornamental roundabout in which to punish the anti-social.
All this can only end in tears, you think, and so it does, as a regime of public morality turns increasingly malign and violent.
Ayckbourn directs his own play with relish, and though the piece never scales the heights of his greatest work, when it becomes impossible to stop laughing, this timely and provocative play rivets attention throughout. There are some blissful comic moments and even that staple of Ayckbourn’s dramatic world, an ornamental garden gnome, has a crucial part to play.
The cast is outstanding. Matthew Cottle seems such a meek and harmless chap as the Christian pacifist Martin, but his leadership of the Neighbourhood Watch committee ushers in some disturbing events. Alexandra Mathie is splendidly creepy as his embittered sister.
There is a delightful performance of unbuttoned sexiness from Frances Grey as the promiscuous neighbour who soon has even the upstanding Martin in her amorous coils, while Richard Derrington is hilarious as her self-pitying Welsh spouse.
At a time when many want a stronger emphasis on law and order in our “broken” society, Ayckbourn’s play sounds a warning note that is as perceptive as it is entertaining.
(Daily Telegraph, 14 September 2011)
Neighbourhood Watch (by Mark Shenton)
The barbarians are at the gate - or at least the bottom of the hill - in Neighbourhood Watch, Alan Ayckbourn’s latest prescient play about the current state of society and policing, as a group of apparently respectable residents of the Bluebell Hill Development start to take the law into their own hands as they are threatened by the looming unspecified anarchy of the nearby Mount Joy estate, rife - they say - with drugs and incest.
Fortifying themselves in a private gated community - where security passes are implemented to gain access - and with stocks set up on the mini-roundabout to punish transgressors of their laws, their vision of Britain is taken from the Daily Mail, whose headlines are even referenced here - while another resident is promptly dismissed as a Guardian reader.
Ayckbourn - this is his 75th play - shows immense craft as well as art to fashion a brilliant social comedy that is also a fierce and provocative political drama anatomising urban anxiety. The recent riots that engulfed London and other parts of Britain point to the prescience of a comment here, “I have a friend in the force and he tells me that, day to day, the police are hanging on by a whisker. It’s not just here, mark you. It’s nationwide. One breath of wind - anarchy!”
Yet Ayckbourn shows that their alternative to policing things isn’t any better, and riven with its own very human failings of longing and belonging. Ayckbourn’s own production motors smoothly on a constant laughter track, but poignant performances from Alexandra Mathie and Matthew Cottle draw on Ayckbourn’s familiar reservoir of pain and loneliness as the middle-aged brother and sister who move into the development and set up the neighbourhood watch.
This superbly acted, painfully funny and truthful play shows Ayckbourn in no danger of slowing down or having his age yet catch up with the number of plays he has written.
(The Stage, 14 September 2011)
Neighbourhood Watch (by Ron Simpson)
In this, his 75th play (and, equally astonishingly, the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 300th new play) Alan Ayckbourn shows no sign of losing freshness or originality. Neighbourhood Watch goes to New York at the end of the year and it’s difficult to imagine the Americans being presented with a more mordantly convincing picture of the British middle-classes, their obsessions and their “standards”.
In the programme Sir Alan complains of “some damn fool critic...giving away the entire plot” and ruining the theatre of surprise. In this case the surprises start so early that it’s safer just to explain the initial set-up. However, Martin’s death is given away at the start, with his sister dedicating a memorial garden, so it’s pretty safe to assume his Neighbourhood Watch scheme isn’t wholly successful, but the route to farcical tragedy is full of unexpected twists.
Martin and his sister Hilda, in their naive and celibate gnome-loving middle age, have moved in to Bluebell Hill estate and are holding a house-warming. All the neighbours, pinned down with comic precision by Ayckbourn as playwright and director, are suffering from a “Daily Mail” view of society: the council estate down the hill is Sodom and Gomorrah, but less respectable, and the only answer is to build a fence, the bigger the better, even if Hilda’s cherished “vista” will be obscured. Martin, a do-gooder who genuinely seeks to do good, sets up a Neighbourhood Watch – and that’s when things go seriously wrong.
An excellent cast of eight seamlessly encompasses the comic and the sinister or pathetic. The fact that the only successful and stable relationship in the play is between two Lesbians we never actually see shows how damaged the characters are, but that doesn’t stop them being very funny. [Terence Booth]’s quasi-military ex-security man still feels he’s in the front line against the hooligans, Eileen Battye mans the press desk with the authority of a champion gossip and Richard Derrington’s ineffectual Welsh cuckold alternates between bursting into tears and relishing medieval punishments. His wife (Frances Grey) is a giddy variation on the good-hearted tart, and Martin and Hilda’s next door neighbours prove, in the performances of Phil Cheadle and Amy Loughton, more complex than their initial personae as boorish bully and over-emotional “child bride”.
Matthew Cottle and Alexandra Mathie are both outstanding in the central roles. As Martin he combines the rumpled innocence of a Richard Briers (is the character name a tribute to Ever Decreasing Circles?) with the blind certainties of an apprentice dictator, always managing to suggest the humanity that is hidden, but never lost. Hilda is an altogether more sinister figure and Mathie brilliantly charts the many forms repression can take, from “artistic” green wallpaper to public humiliation of the sexually active.
As an entertainment Neighbourhood Watch seldom flags, but Ayckbourn also has something to say (wise and occasionally provocative) about issues ranging from the misuses of religion to the real causes of the “broken society."
(whatsonstage.com, 14 September 2011)
Neighbourhood Watch (by Sam Marlowe)
The streets just aren’t safe for decent people any more. They’re stalked by feral youngsters, who “all carry guns” and are “bristling with knives”; and if it’s not the scum “from the estate” you need to look out for, it’s the Eastern Europeans. So say the middle-class residents of the Bluebell Hill Development in Alan Ayckbourn’s new, tartly topical, pitch-black comedy, a startling evocation of the panic induced by nightmarish notions of “broken Britain” - and of the risk of a knee-jerk, jackbooted Big Society response. This is the writer and director’s 75th play; he’s clearly in no danger of losing his sense of timing.
Hilda and Martin, a pair of devoutly Christian, middle-aged siblings, move together into a house in Bluebell Hill. It has a good view and a nice garden, where unfortunately, during their house-warming gathering, they spot an intruder scaling the wall. The incident - and the subsequent decapitation of a cherished garden gnome - incites the mild-mannered pair to rally their neighbours, a well-intentioned, community-spirited move that results in the creation of a self-policed mini fascist state, complete with armed vigilantes, ID cards, a perimeter fence and even a set of stocks in which wrongdoers can be displayed for public humiliation. Moral boundaries become disastrously blurred, and with gossip rife, the new order becomes both power-drunk and a pretext for pursuing personal vendettas.
The scene is set by sofas, teacups and sitcom-style gags; but the cosy atmosphere of Ayckbourn’s own staging quickly curdles. There are revelations of domestic unhappiness and abuse, with more than one character emotionally scarred by a disciplinarian father. And the closeness of Hilda and Martin is revealed as stiflingly unhealthy when he falls for a neighbour’s sexually predatory wife; his sister all but implodes with jealous rancour.
These private hurts and antipathies never quite mesh into the dramatic whole, and overall the play feels rather uneven, its escalating mayhem less finely manipulated than in the finest of Ayckbourn’s work. But Matthew Cottle as the increasingly messianic Martin, who insists he’s a pacifist even as he’s fervidly declaring war on his ill-defined enemy, and Alexandra Mathie as Hilda, whose quick-developing taste for vengeance is unavoidably sadistic, are disturbingly good. An arresting, nastily comic cautionary tale.
(The Times, 14 September 2011)
Neighbourhood Watch (by Charles Hutchinson)
Alan Ayckbourn’s 75th premiere is the 300th new work at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, a double cause for celebration that is surpassed by the play itself.
Neighbourhood Watch is a state-of-the-nation assessment wrapped inside a darkly comic drama of middle-class, Middle England neuroses that could not be better timed in the wake of the August riots.
What foresight, what prescience, from Ayckbourn, who is in a purple patch of writing as he enters the seventh age of man, addressing religion, politics, sex, relationships, broken gnomes and the broken society with a sureness, clarity and wit beyond politicians, church and comedians alike.
Such is his supreme theatrical confidence as writer and director that he wrong-foots you at the start, opening at the story’s end with a long eulogy to her newly dead brother Martin by possessive, sinister spinster Hilda (Alexandra Mathie, superb as ever), whose ultra-Christian speech grows ever more twisted and gnarled.
Laughter freezes on the breath but thaws quickly once Ayckbourn goes back to the beginning: Martin (Matthew Cottle) and Hilda have moved into suburban Bluebell Hill, a new-build middle-class haven, where he finds his little Englander voice in the neighbourhood watch scheme, whose members are united in distrust of the nearby estate.
Dorothy (Eileen Battye) represents the Daily Mail reader; security-obsessed Rod (Terence Booth) has lost faith in the police and is taking the law into his own hand. Gareth (Richard Derrington) has lost his engineering job and now devotes himself to recreating old instruments of punishment and torture, his mind tipped over the edge by his play-away wife, Amy (Frances Grey, who is anything but grey).
Dyed red hair, short dresses, dangerous eyes, loose tongue and looser cannon, Amy is dicing with trouble with the scary Luther (Phil Cheadle), whose wife, music teacher Magda (Amy Loughton), is the play’s most mysterious and disturbed character.
Every scene takes place in the comfort / discomfort of Martin and Hilda’s sitting room, but it is the world beyond Pip Leckenby’s deliberately bland design that Ayckbourn creates so well, as the neighbourhood watch scheme takes on an inexorable paranoia befitting of George Orwell’s prophetic novels.
This is the England of barbed wire fencing, patrolling wardens, guard dogs, intrusive street lights and ever more sub-committees, and it could be coming your way.
Once more, Ayckbourn writes so piercingly of dysfunctional men and frustrated women, while also nailing the ailing health and well-being of modern-day Britain. He makes you laugh at the madness of it all but fear for a future where religion, governments and neighbourhood watch schemes do not have the answer.
He is also casting and directing brilliantly, every performance here a joy to observe, but you wouldn’t want any of them as your neighbour. Would you? Oh dear, the paranoia must be infectious.
(The Press, 17 September 2011)
Black Comedy Which Is Well Worth A Watch (by Sue Wilkinson)
It’s no good locking your door to keep out the baddies - because they’re already inside.
Well, they are in Alan Ayckbourn’s 75th play which is a deliciously dark and marvelously malicious comedy.
Brother and sister Martin and Hilda are devout Christians who have moved into a house on the Bluebell Hill Development - lauding the View and looking forward to meeting their neighbours. Within minutes they have been warned about the nearby Mount Joy estate - where incest, violence and drugs are rife - and have built a fortified fence round their home and started a neighbourhood watch scheme.
Though written before the riots, the play feeds on concerns about a lawless under class and an invisible powerless police force. But, rather than showing a community-led action group and ‘big society’ are the way forward, Ayckbourn shows the alternatives to be every bit as dangerous and frightening.
The residents do - with their locked gates, patrols, ID passes and stocks on the ornamental roundabout- drive down crime. But their regime, well-meaning at first, becomes oppressive and extreme. Though some dangers have been locked out, others - sexual predatory, domestic abuse, paranoia, madness, jealousy and rivalry - have been locked in and they are just as unnerving and destructive as any threats from the Mount Joy.
All this is performed by an excellent cast - led by Matthew Cottle as the meek and mild Martin, who starts to revel in his power and media fame - and Alexandra Mathie as his bustlingly gentle sister Hilda, who turns out to be very creepy.
Cottle, who is outstanding in Dear Uncle, is proving to be the flavour of the season at the Stephen Joseph. He is a delight to watch in both works.
There are great turns, too, from Terence Booth as the former security officer who positively revels in his role as a vigilante, Richard Derrington as the cuckolded Welsh engineer who delights in making instruments of torture and punishment, Frances Grey as the predatory Amy and Eileen Battye as nosy and gossipy Dorothy.
While there is an over-long introductory monologue and few - jokes about the Daily Mail and The Guardian aside - laugh-out-loud moments, there is much to commend the play.
It is politically savvy, subversive, sinister and darkly humorous.
(Scarborough Evening News, 15 September 2011)
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