New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Tuesday 18th October, 2011
When middle-aged brother and sister, Martin and Hilda move into the Bluebird Hills development, a minor incident involving a boy from the nearby council estate prompts them to instigate a neighbourhood watch scheme to protect themselves and their property. Thus Alan Ayckbourn sets up the latest of his long, long line of plays, but this is no cosy, suburban sitcom – they never are, for that matter.
The characters vent the fears of the middle classes, as seen in the Daily Mail, but it is not these perceived and distorted objects of terror that prove to be the nightmares in the end. Martin’s neighbourhood watch scheme soon blossoms, burgeons and gets out of hand. The residents soon give up their civil liberties and agree to carry identity cards to allow them ingress and egress. The fences get higher. Razor wire adorns the walls. Patrols roam the streets with baseball bats. Even the Police have to seek permission to enter the now-gated community.
Martin finds an inner strength, at first from his faith and his pacifism, but then from his acceptance by the committee as their undisputed leader. Sister Hilda has her own agenda. It is not long before sub-committees are established: for morality, and for discipline and punishment. A wronged husband eagerly researches, designs and builds a set of stocks, with the promise of more medieval devices of harsher punishment to come. With the bad guys all kept at bay, the residents seek to police themselves. How quickly they devolve from sticky beaks and curtain twitchers to full-on war on terror, Sharia law, power-crazed lunatics! They seek to mete out their form of baseball bat justice on the undesirables on the neighbouring estate. This leads to a final showdown with the Police, culminating in Martin being shot to death, all over a misunderstanding over a garden gnome figure of Christ. If he could relinquish the symbol of his beliefs, for only a few seconds, he would live to chair meetings another day. But he cannot, has not the wit to, and so, hilariously, is martyred.
Evil sister Hilda’s true colours have come to the fore well before this point. A sour-faced, bowl-haircutted, Ann Widdecombe of a woman, she survives to spread her twisted values, with added hypocrisy.
The play grows darker with every scene. At one point Hilda and her henchwoman question the young bride from next door about the bruises on her arms. It is an inquisition all the more chilling because of their politeness and reserve.
Ayckbourn subverts his own genre, you might say, by showing us these middle class monsters and daring us to identify with them. They build their own cage and become both guards and prisoners.
This play has a lot to say about a certain view of the world and how easy it is for society to panic itself into extremes of behaviour that are far worse than the original perceived problem.
The excellent cast, led by Matthew Cottle and Alexandra Mathie as Martin and Hilda, don’t miss a nuance of characterisation or a beat in delivery of yet another highly-crafted script. Directed by the playwright himself, Neighbourhood Watch is a topical comedy, a cautionary tale in these dark days.
As a footnote, I would like to add that the auditorium of the New Vic was, on this occasion, worse than any doctor’s waiting room for coughing throughout the performance. Please, New Vic, sell lozenges – if people will insist on rustling sweet wrappers during a play, I would rather they were opening cough sweets.