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".