It’s easy to forget that the Ensemble are an independent theatre company because there is a gloss and polish in their productions and design normally reserved for the bigger funded theatres. The downside is they also come under fire for not taking more risks in their programming but if you have to keep your base subscribers happy, you had better devise a season that caters for a wide, conservative audience. That means putting a few old favourites in there: a Williamson, a classic, a contemporary, a woman, a local new work and plenty of mainstream, narrative and linear-driven plays. It’s why you can throw in a ‘Frankenstein’ or a ‘Red’ each season because without the bread and butter of what will pay the bills from the formula above, there would be little room to experiment at all and the Ensemble would be demolished on its prime real estate location and turned into a monstrosity of high density apartments.
So I went to see Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Neighbourhood Watch’, directed by Anna Crawford, secure in the knowledge that it was one of their bread-and-butter programming choices. What I didn’t expect and clearly underestimated was Ayckbourn’s ability to use a relatively obvious vehicle of a neighbourhood watch group whose fear of the outsider prompts them into drastic and dangerous action, to actually present a clever depiction of ideas, characters, relationships, human needs and insecurities that resonate long after the play is over. Whilst the play appears simple, its satire has bite. There are some genuinely funny moments in this play and we recognise these characters. They are condensed versions of talk-back radio callers, thugs and bullies, the damaged, of some of our well-meaning but xenophobic elderly or conservative relatives, neighbours, co-workers or friends. Dare I say it, they might even represent us. Whilst we see this gated community grow in power and intent, what they do to assert and sustain control in the name of protection leads them to do things that certainly contravene human rights and suddenly I’m thinking about our national policy towards those seeking refuge in our country and our tough, inhumane response to them and I think this play isn’t absurd, it’s a comic version of suburban fear. It’s just that our baseball bats, sentries and stocks on the ornamental roundabouts all happen off-shore.
Amanda McNamara’s and Peter Neufeld’s design of the lighting scape of illuminated houses scattered in the web on the roof is a lovely metaphor for our lofty and tangled community ideals that Crawford captures in her production of Ayckbourn’s play and the bookends of Hilda’s (Fiona Press) memorial to her brother Martin (Brian Meegan) is a smart signposting of our hypocrisy and ambition.
It’s a well-cast play and each performance is a committed expression of the archetypes you might expect to find in your own neighbourhood and you will nod in recognition as they journey throughout the play and delve into a fear of strangers, neighbours, change, sexuality, abuse and loss. Of course whilst you laugh at this seeming comedy, you realise in so many ways that what you’re watching is the history of humanity and the real tragedy of how far away from ‘Christian values’ we stumble without realising it.
It’s a nicely packaged play that delivers a pertinent message and is a worthy programming choice.