BWW Review: NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH at Howick Little Theatre
Reviewed by Glenda Pearce
"Tea First, Then War."
Superbly acted, well directed, ironically funny, and truthful at a surprising level, the latest play at Howick Little Theatre is certainly worth seeing. "Neighbourhood Watch" shows that veteran playwright Alan Ayckbourn still has his finger on the social pulse. Alan Ayckbourn said that, "I'm always a great believer, when I write a play, to narrow it down to the people. Plays are about people for me, not about issues - the issues arise from the people."
The well-written script (his 75th) provides a definite range of humorous opportunities - dry wit, character stereotypes, sexist remarks, realistic (sometimes black) humour and moments of well-timed comedy - all of which this cast took great joy developing. The set of a freshly decorated living room was simple but very effective, with the audience in an L shape, allowing the characters to be the main focus. It was as if we were "watching in" just the various characters watched the action of the street and the neighbourhood.
The play is set in an upper middle class neighbourhood at Bluebell Hill and the play opens at their housewarming party, where new arrivals, brother and sister, Martin Massie (Matthew van den Berg) and Hilda Massie (Anna Baird) soon learn of the risks of living near the local council housing estate. Rod Trusser (Peter Webster), from number 9, suggests putting a ten foot high fence (topped with barbed wire) between the garden and the housing estate, saying, "They'll be walking in and out of here all day long otherwise, riff raff and vermin." "It's a cess pit of incest."
After Martin confronts a young boy, who he assumes is trespassing through his garden, and molesting their favourite statues ( Jesus and Monty the gnome) the siblings decide to set up a well-intentioned Neighbourhood Watch group to protect themselves. When the group decide to go ahead without the involvement of any police officers, the very Christian inhabitants of Bluebell Hill become vigilantes and, fuelled by class hatred, they plot against the local "hoodies". The play is a repeating series of episodes of rather static neighbourhood watch meetings that could be tedious; but the quality performances and well-directed action keeps the audience completely engrossed as they watch how romantic entanglements and over-zealous tactics escalate the action to a range of complications!
Anna Baird is outstanding in her portrayal of devoutly Christian Hilda Massie. Virtually never off the stage, she dominates the action and provides a superb twist of sibling rivalry. Anna's professional line delivery and well-focused concentration and facial expressions ensure the audience never lost interest. Always well-intentioned, and full of bustling kindness, cups of tea, and looking after the neighbours at all times, the plot twists well for Hilda in the final moments.
Likewise, Matthew van den Berg, was the classic stalwart. Having popped a knee only a few days earlier, he played Martin, "very convincingly" with limp and walking stick. There was a good range of credible character changes displayed such as the humility required when he becomes a national hero on the front page of the local paper, the affair with the local straying sexually frustrated wife, and femme fatale, Amy Janner (Viktoria Jowers-Wilding) - as well as many significant high points of physical action.
Superb truthful performances also came from Peter Webster as Rod Trusser, the paranoid and suspicious ex-security officer, with a mistrust of the police, who knew how to work the stage space well, could use his eyes and voice with skill, and could sell the sharp wit of many of his lines. Unforgettable lines: "Eight years under my roof, and I said to her if you don't like, then out you go. And off she went."
And of course, there was the delightful gossip, Dorothy (Linda Kerfoot), from no 4, who controlled many delightful touches of well-timed humour, voicing what many others wouldn't: " We should all carry guns" and kept the energy of the scenes well. Outstanding supporting performance also from the deserted husband, Gareth Janner (Matthew Cousins), who with very few lines, managed to stay entirely in the moment. Facial expressions were superb, comic timing well-honed and we loved his dramatic and delighted outburst when he designed stocks as potential punishments (sited on the ornamental roundabout) and the chastity belt, and the "tar and feathers".
More minor roles were also played well. Interesting that Ayckbourn tends to give us characters to trust and then reveal their flaws, and their darker sides. There was a vocal truth to the menace and a dangerous glint in the eye of the seriously imposing abusive husband, Luther Bradley (Zac Clarke), and when his victim wife, Magda (Madeline Potter) movingly shares her backstory, which explains why she is able to be victimised, the audience feels genuine empathy.
Director Penel Keegan has done a superb job of exploring fractious social issues, and led the talented cast into truthful and well-sustained performances of Ayckbourn's flawed and believable characters. Do go and see it!
Howick Little Theatre