Neighbourhood Watch

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, December 18

Brian Meegan and Fiona Press. Photo: Natalie Boog

Brian Meegan and Fiona Press. Photo: Natalie Boog

Written in 2011, Neighbourhood Watch is Alan Ayckbourn’s 75th play – and we thought David Williamson was prolific. It may not be vintage Ayckbourn but it’s an entertaining, darkly funny satire.

Tuning into the perennial fear of the unknown or “other”, as well as concerns about the changing face of Britain and the breakdown of society, Ayckbourn proved to have his finger on the pulse: the London Riots happened shortly after the play’s Scarborough premiere.

Devout Christian siblings Martin (Brian Meegan) and Hilda (Fiona Press), both unmarried, move into a nice, middle-class suburb, bringing a garden gnome called Monty and a statue of Jesus with them. They’ve only just arrived when Martin spots a teenager clambering over the next-door fence. Taking the boy to be an intruder and warned by neighbours about the “drugs, violence and incest” in the nearby, run-down council estate, he decides to form a neighbourhood watch committee.

Joining Martin and Hilda, are local gossip Dorothy (Gillian Axtell), ex-security guard Rod (Bill Young), Gareth (Jamie Oxenbould), a whining engineer with a mania for medieval punishment devices, Gareth’s promiscuous wife Amy (Olivia Pigeot) and Magda (Lizzie Mitchell), a troubled music teacher who lives next door with her aggressive husband Luther (Douglas Hansell).

Before long, the do-gooders have become every bit as frightening as the “riff raff and vermin” they are supposedly protecting themselves from, instituting a gated community with ID cards, volunteer vigilantes and a set of stocks on the roundabout into town.

The characters never feel entirely real but under the direction of Anna Crawford the excellent cast give sterling performances, doing their utmost to bring them to vibrant life.

Press is disturbingly good as Hilda, proving every bit as pushy as she is pious, while Meegan’s Brian merges decency and tyranny with self-satisfied ease. Oxenbould meanwhile is very funny as the wimpy Gareth, whinging about his wife’s behaviour one minute and pontificating over the difference between stocks and pillories the next.

The second act in which Ayckbourn focuses on the characters’ personal issues isn’t as sharp as the first and peters out a bit, but Crawford’s well-paced production keeps us engaged.

Neighbourhood Watch is a morality tale that underlines the potential danger of religious fervour and any form of dictatorship no matter how seemingly benign. We know we are being fed a message by Ayckbourn but it’s done with plenty of humour and enough of a sting in the tail to make us ponder.

Neighbourhood Watch runs at the Ensemble Theatre until January 24. Bookings: ensemble.com.au or (02) 9929 8877

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on December 29

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