What must it be like to have written 75 plays? Yorkshire playwright Alan Ayckbourn knows, having reached that milestone with (evidently) little sign of slowing down. Neighbourhood Watch continues his tradition of skewering the pretensions and foibles of the British middle class. Anyone who’s watched British TV sitcoms knows these sorts of middle-of-the-road suburban folk who accept their lot in life with humor and sighs and an awful lot of tea – except when they don’t.
Here, it’s mild-mannered, middle-aged Martin (a winning and subtly high-powered Matthew Cottle) arriving to stir things up. Just as he and his quietly steely sister Hilda (a superb Alexandra Mathie) move into a new suburban development, a misunderstanding with a trespassing local boy launches Martin into a relentless marshaling of the neighbors into an increasingly strident and fascistic neighborhood watchdog group.
The plot gets rather less believable as events progress. Why doesn’t he just…? why would she have married him in the first place…? and so on. But the main joy of the evening lies in its cast of eccentrics. Much as you’ll see on a Britcom, the characters in this sort of Ayckbourn farce stride and judder their way from a position of reasonableness to one of insane excess without seeming to bat an eyelash.
Retired security man Rod contemplates a smallish box Martin has wrestled from the trespassing boy and suggests it might be a “modified sniper rifle”: “There’s dozens of them. The country’s flooded with them. Eastern Europe. Never should have torn down the Iron Curtain. Biggest mistake we ever made. Best not touch it. Be on the safe side.” Rod’s paranoia feeds Martin’s dictatorial spirit and his harsh speech pattern sets the tone for the Committee’s increasingly tyrannical pronouncements. And we’re off.
Along the way, Ayckbourn, who also directed, and his ace cast have a lot of fun with language. When a libidinous young neighbor named Amy (a delightful Frances Grey) takes a shine to Martin, foreplay manifests in coquettish wordplay, and a climax of the show comes with Martin’s spotlight speech justifying the neighborhood watch itself: “I’m talking about those people, Mr. Bradley, the ones who feel powerless, who believe that there is no one left to turn to. Well, I’m saying to them, yes, there is someone…” It’s a paroxysm of low-falutin’ oratory absurdly elevated by its jittery context and by a usually discreet touch of nobility in the character embodied so gloriously by the sweatered Mr. Cottle.
Ayckbourn is often pegged as a middlebrow playwright. But Shakespeare, for all his high-flown and poetic language, wrote for the common people of his day, even as he illuminated profound truths of human nature. (And his plots were often far more preposterous those Mr. Ayckbourn dreams up!) Ayckbourn shines a high-definition light on his middle-class suburban folk, and while we laugh at their antic excesses we nonetheless recognize their natures in a most personal way. Pointedly written and expertly staged, Neighbourhood Watch is both a highly entertaining comedy and a rather gruesome demonstration of what makes us all worth laughing at – and pitying. Long live the preternaturally productive Alan Ayckbourn.
Part of 595E59‘s annual Brits Off Broadway series, Neighbourhood Watch is a production of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England. It runs in New York through January 1.