Neighbourhood Watch: History

Neighbourhood Watch is remarkably prescient play by Alan Ayckbourn which drew comparisons to the riots which spread throughout the UK during the summer of 2011. It also became the first Ayckbourn play to transfer to both New York and London with the original cast from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

Behind The Scenes: White Lie
Neighbourhood Watch is not actually the 300th new play to be produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. This was Dear Uncle, Alan Ayckbourn's adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. However for publicity reasons - and as the order of plays being commissioned does not necessarily match the order of production - Neighbourhood Watch was publicised as the 300th new play at the SJT.
The play was actually a landmark as it marked both the playwright's 75th full-length play as well as the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 300th new play since it opened at the Library Theatre in 1955.

Neighbourhood Watch was commissioned by the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2010 and Alan had a far larger concept for the play than that which was eventually written. Given it was his 75th play, he had hopes for more of a piece of event theatre. However, with the implication in 2010 that major cuts in art funding in the UK were looming, Alan approached the Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Chris Monks, to suggest a scaled down play both in terms of size and budget. The Stephen Joseph Theatre agreed.

The playwright's notes held in archive give some insight into his original idea for the play, which is essentially the same as the final play but with a slightly broadened scope. This is most clearly seen in that the cast of eight was to originally play 16 characters with every actor doubling up roles; the playwright later admitted that most of this was to add texture and colour and the eight additional characters did not make a significant difference to the overall plot.

Behind The Scenes: White Lie
The relationship between Martin and his sister, Hilda, in the early scenes of the play was inspired by the television and radio sitcom Marriage Lines. This show, which ran on BBC1 from 1961 - 1966 and on BBC Radio from 1965 - 1967, starred Richard Briers and Prunella Scales as a newly married couple; although Martin and Hilda obviously are not in the same kind of relationship, Alan wanted a similar light and silly relationship before the play turns darker and the relationship becomes more strained.
The central characters of brother and sister Martin and Hilda Massie were considerably different though as the then Martin Krark was conceived as fiercely right-wing, which combined with his deeply religious sister made them 'a dangerous combination'. He also originally intended that they had 'a dark childhood domineering father and a submissive mother.' As it is, although Hilda's religion remains, Martin's character is far less strident and much more sympathetic and there is no hint of a dark background; in fact, the playwright goes out of his way to make them both light and playful characters to begin with.

Alan began writing the play during October 2010 and it was finished during the first week of November. Once written, Alan felt the play was one of his darker pieces in tone and that it reflected his perceived apprehension in society about the possible breakdown of law and order. Obviously written far in advance of any of the later events it would become associated with, it came to be perceived to be unintentionally - and perhaps alarmingly - prescient.

The play was built around a cast of eight as the Stephen Joseph Theatre had decided to stage
Neighbourhood Watch in repertory with the world premiere of Dear Uncle, Alan's adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, with both plays sharing the same company. This marked the first time there was a specific Ayckbourn company at the venue since Chris Monks had become Artistic Director in 2009; in 2009 and 2010, both he and Alan had shared companies for the summer repertory at the Stephen Joseph Theatre - something which had frustrated Alan and had produced mixed results for both directors.

Behind The Scenes: White Lie
Having begun writing Neighbourhood Watch in October 2010, Alan completed the first act of the play but was unhappy with the what he had written. As a result, he deleted the entire act and rewrote it; no copy of the original first act survives.
Rehearsals began in August 2011 and just as they began, the UK was hit by a surprise and shocking series of riots in major UK cities; these five days marked one of the largest civil disturbances in recent memory in the UK. The pertinency of the play, opening so soon after the riots and with its coincidental theme, was swiftly picked up and covered by the media - although Alan was quick to point out it would be disingenuous to suggest the play was in any way inspired or influenced by real events given it was written nine months before the riots took place.

Neighbourhood Watch opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on 8 September 2011 with the press night on 13 September and It received uniformly excellent reviews. Even the one dissenting voice, Sam Marlowe of The Times, largely applauded the production (The Times lead critic Libby Purves would later praise the play when it reached London). The prescience of Alan's subject was generally noted alongside the excellence of his acting company, with several critics writing the play marked a return to some of Alan's blackest comedy.

Behind The Scenes: White Lie
The BBC documentary Imagine: Greetings From Scarborough, broadcast on 16 November 2011, featured a number of filmed extracts from Neighbourhood Watch. It also featured, much to the annoyance of both Alan and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the final scene of the play which included a major spoiler; at the time of broadcast the play was still being performed in New York with a UK tour and London transfer to follow.
The play was also featured heavily in the BBC arts documentary series Imagine to mark the playwright's long career and 75th play.

Meanwhile on 12 July 2011, the Stephen Joseph Theatre announced on the
BBC that Neighbourhood Watch would also tour to New York, where it would be the third of Alan Ayckbourn's play to receive its American premiere at the Brits Off Broadway festival at the 59E59 Theaters (and the fourth Ayckbourn play to be presented by Alan at the festival). This would mark the quickest transfer of an Ayckbourn play to New York following its world premiere.

Following a short in-the-round tour,
Neighbourhood Watch transferred to the 59E59 Theaters, New York, on 30 November 2011 as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, running until 1 January. The play was well-received, although not as critically successful as his previous plays presented at the festival. On 24 November 2011, it was announced the play's 2012 UK tour would conclude with a month long residency at the Tricycle Theatre in London.

Neighbourhood Watch opened at the Tricycle Theatre on 11 April 2012 - not long after the venue's acclaimed production of Gillian Slovo's play The Riots, which examined the 2011 riots from the perspective of first hand reportage. Significantly, this marked the first time since Private Fears In Public Places in 2005 that a new Alan Ayckbourn play had transferred to London. Whilst in London, the world premiere production reached its 200th production on 25 April 2012; a rarity in that figure was reached with the same company which launched the play eight months earlier. The production was again well-received and ended a remarkable year for Alan's 75th play.

Neighbourhood Watch was published in 2013 by Samuel French and has since proved to be one of his most popular recent plays. It has been produced by amateur companies around the country with several notable international professional productions.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.