Review: Neighbourhood Watch, Richmond Theatre

Prolific seems like an understatement for playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose staggering 75th play is currently touring the UK. He proves with this latest offering that, although he might not be on blistering form, he has not quite lost touch yet. In this blackly comic new play, the attempts of a concerned neighbourhood to curb their local crime rate take a nasty turn that has disturbing resonances for our disillusioned and so-called ‘broken’ society.

The central protagonists are Martin and Hilda, a pair of middle-class, middle-aged, devoutly Christian siblings who move into Bluebell Hill, a seemingly quiet residential area. It soon emerges, however, that the community backs onto a ‘rough’ estate and that there have been a spate of local crimes, including the much-discussed theft of a hedge trimmer. Provoked by the destruction of his beloved garden gnome, Martin decides to take action, forming a neighbourhood watch scheme that soon upgrades from peaceful patrols to fences reminiscent of a prison camp and a set of stocks in the middle of the ornamental roundabout.

In Bluebell Hill, Ayckbourn has created a wonderfully, typically British suburbia, where war is preceded by tea. The complaints of the residents are also recognisably British, although less pleasingly so, as they trundle out all the old concerns about yobs and the state of today’s society. The Daily Mail reference, one suspects, is far from accidental. It is inevitable, of course, that Martin and Hilda’s crazed response will end in tears, and before long there are threats of a smear campaign and some unhappy criminals on the loose.

Performances are fairly strong all round in this production directed by the playwright, with Matthew Cottle and Alexandra Mathie standing out as the apparently innocuous if eccentric siblings who gradually reveal their darker sides. Cottle bumbles and blusters excellently, while Mathie manages to tint Hilda’s earnest kindness with an edge of the sinister. Despite this, though, the script does not allow any of the characters to feel fully believable, restricting them within the bounds of the comedy.

Fascinating, deeply relevant issues lie at the heart of this odd, unsettling tale of good intentions gone awry and the dangers of people taking the law into their own hands. Following his own dictum of writing small, Ayckbourn uses Bluebell Hill as a microcosm of wider society, exploring both the fractures that exist within our modern world and our flawed attempts to heal these – attempts which, like Martin’s neighbourhood watch, can often widen these rifts even further. Ayckbourn also implicitly rails against the hypocrisy that stains both siblings and would-be leaders, a criticism that resonates with many of those currently in power.

However, for all this underlying and topically on-the-button interest, the old-fashioned comic trappings in which these issues are wrapped are an unfortunate distraction. While fascinated by the murky depths, I often found myself bored by the superficial ripples. The comedy is rarely riotous enough to be farce and the satire not sufficiently cutting, combining to create an end product that is only mildly amusing. Indeed, mild serves as a fitting description for a play that could be searing but, like Martin, holds back on delivering its punch.

Neighbourhood Watch runs at Richmond Theatre until 11 February.

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