Neighbourhood Watch – January 2012

7/10

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Stephen Joseph Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 23rd January 2012

This was an enjoyable evening which ended rather unfortunately. A memorial statue which was meant to be revealed at the end refused to drop into place – looked like it was hanging the wrong way up – and so the cast had to take their bows without the punch line having been delivered, a real shame for them after their hard work. And it was hard work with this audience; we both felt, despite it being one of Ayckbourn’s darker offerings, that there was more humour in this play than the audience response indicated. It may be that the subject matter was a bit too close to home for comfort; we noticed that several jokes about Daily Mail readers received a lukewarm chuckle, but a similar disparaging remark about Guardian readers a few lines later got a huge laugh.

The play covered current concerns about security, and the trend towards high-security compounds for the ‘posh’ folk to protect them from the ‘yobs’ from the sink estates. We followed the experiences of a brother and sister, newly arrived at the Bluebell Hill development, from their housewarming party to the memorial service for the brother, Martin, after his sad demise while fighting to protect the standard of life for the local residents. The opening scene, and what would have been the last had it worked, were set at the memorial service; the rest of the scenes were in chronological order.

The set was straightforward. There were black walls at the back with gaps right and left, and two curved sofas on either side covered in a plain fabric with large flower outlines and with three matching cushions on each. In the centre was a fake circular fireplace with a flicker effect which they turned on whenever there were guests, and a large rim which doubled as a table. There were also two side tables on the audience side of the sofas. An extra chair was brought on for some of the meetings, and there was carpet on the floor up to the patio door on the right, where a section of the stage had been tiled to show the outside area. They acted the patio door, thank goodness.

The characters were a lovely mixed bunch. Martin and Hilda, brother and sister, were very prim and proper, with a strong moral and religious streak. Actually she was much more rigid than he was, and during the course of the play he even developed a relationship with another woman and planned to leave his sister. His death shortly afterwards meant she could ignore this inconvenient fact in her eulogy, while freeing her up to develop her own unconventional relationship.

Rod was one of their neighbours who was retired from some kind of security job, and was positively rabid about the threats they faced from the scum who lived in the estate nearby, across a field. He had even forced his way into someone’s house to retrieve a hedge trimmer which he knew this man had stolen, searching the place while the man was there. He eventually found his hedge trimmer and walked off with it, only to find himself in trouble with the police! His hedge trimmer was now in custody as it was evidence, and he was livid about the whole incident. He certainly showed us the potential for violence and law-breaking from the self-righteous, aggrieved middle classes, who feel everyone else is out to get them.

Dorothy was another retired neighbour who used to work on the local paper. We were led to believe she was a reporter, so there was a good laugh when she finally admitted that she worked on small ads. She was a good source for the local gossip which allowed us to find out a lot about the situation and the people, and she took on the media work for their neighbourhood watch scheme when it attracted lots of media attention.

Luther and Magda were the next door neighbours. He was a bully and a wife beater, she was a woman who had been abused from an early age and who ended up staying with Martin and Hilda for protection. Luther was the one person who spoke up against the rather extreme measures taken by the neighbourhood watch committee, and he was also the Guardian reader, but he seemed a bit underwritten compared to the others. Magda was a musician who also gave lessons, and her description of her early experiences was quite hard to listen to. Her final choices indicated that she’d found another strong character to take charge of her life.

Gareth and Amy were the final two characters. He was an older man who liked tinkering in his shed, but his main motivation for supporting the neighbourhood watch was that his wife, Amy, was a total slut, sleeping around with every man on the development regardless of their marital status. She’d married Gareth on the rebound, and he’d been regretting it ever since. It did give him an interest in various forms of public punishment, including the stocks, the pillory, scold’s bridle, etc., and the committee made good use of his woodworking talents and this interest. Amy wore very fitting dresses with very high hems with red hair and lots of makeup. She was very interested to find that Martin and Hilda were siblings rather than married, and we weren’t surprised to find Martin’s attitudes changing a bit over the course of the play.

The housewarming scene led to the inaugural meeting to set up the neighbourhood watch scheme. When the police were unable to attend to give advice, and someone threw Martin’s garden gnome through the window, destroying it completely, Martin decided they should go it alone and include some people who weren’t keen to be involved if the police were part of it. These turned out to be the local crime boss and his two thuggish sons; patrols were very effective and crime was slashed, but their methods were rather drastic, and when a house on the estate was burned down when they went to ‘have a word’ with its occupant, the police turned up at the Bluebell Hill security gatehouse demanding to get in to arrest the two sons.

After making sure that the stocks weren’t visible, Martin authorised the security chief (Rod) to radio the gatehouse to let them in. Unfortunately, they only caught one of the sons, which meant that an angry armed sociopath was hiding within the security fence, waiting to get his revenge for being shopped to the police. Fortunately he was too stupid to count properly, so it was the house next door to Martin and Hilda’s that went up in flames, and it was when the fire service and police were trying to deal with that problem that Martin, armed only with a statue of Jesus, went out into his garden and met his fate.

The final scene showed us the aftermath through the preparations for the memorial service, and then a curtain came down to shield the fireplace from our view while they lowered the statue chosen to commemorate Martin’s life. Being so close, we could see a bit of it, and at first it looked like a giant dildo which made us laugh to ourselves. But then we realised it was the hat of a large garden gnome, about three feet high I would guess, and gold coloured, which had slipped onto its side and just wouldn’t come down onto the fireplace. A stage hand came on at the back and realised he couldn’t do anything, so they just had to leave things there and take their bows. We felt for them; it was clearly meant to be a funny punchline as Hilda’s opening speech had claimed this was not only a fitting memorial, but also a symbol of much greater and higher things. A garden gnome would have been very funny, but alas not tonight.

The performances were all fine, and there was plenty to enjoy, but the audience, like the gnome, weren’t as cooperative as we would have liked.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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