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Neighbourhood Watch

Alan Ayckbourn combines hilarity with darker themes in his newest play.

Matthew Cottle and company
in Neighbourhood Watch
(© Karl Andre Photography)
Alan Ayckbourn blends old-fashioned sex farce antics with the sort of cautionary allegory one associates with writers like George Orwell in <>Neighbourhood Watch, playing at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off-Broadway festival. It's a daring combination, and while there are times when the play can feel over-written, Ayckbourn more often than not blends his hilarious comedy with his darker themes with tremendous success.

The play begins somberly as Hilda (Alexandra Mathie in a meticulously conceived turn) dedicates a park in her brother's name at The Bluebell Hill Development where they both lived and where he suffered an untimely death. In short order, the piece flashes back four months, and theatergoers meet milquetoast brother Martin (Matthew Cottle) as he and his sister prepare to host a housewarming party for their new neighbors in this middle class suburban community.

Martin and Hilda -- both middle-aged, quite religious, and curiously devoted to one another -- are thrilled about their new home and the view of the countryside it provides, even if just beyond the fields they see from their living room lies a less affluent and more dodgy set of homes.

Their sense of well-being is, however, cut short when Martin spies a young man in their backyard and, assuming the kid is from the wrong side of the tracks, confronts him. As guests arrive and Martin describes the scuffle, he learns that his neighbors, particularly ex-security guard Rod (imbued with deliciously eccentric bluster by Terence Booth), have concerns about the safety of the residents of Bluebell Hill.

In short order, Martin, Rod, Hilda, priggish gossip Dorothy (a pertly officious Eileen Battle) and perpetually cuckolded Gareth (made a Northlands nebbish by Richard Derrington) have formed a community watch that rapidly transforms into a fascistic safety-inspired regime after a bit of violence involving Martin's most treasured possession, his garden gnome, Monty. The group issues identity cards, an enormous gate around the development is erected, and Gareth even builds stocks to be placed in the center of town.

Their work is met by almost universal acclaim among the community, but measures to ensure safety expand to ones involving morality. This is when matters get a bit tricky for all concerned, particularly as it relates to Gareth's perpetually philandering sex-kitten wife Amy (a delightful Frances Grey) and Martin and Hilda's next door neighbors, Luther (Phil Cheadle) and Magda (Amy Loughton), who have a few secrets of their own.

The intricate (and sometimes clandestine) relationships of this octet sends the committee and the play spiraling into hilarity and then, a bit out of control. In fact, there comes a point, after Hilda sets a plot in motion to save her brother from himself, that the play actually derails for a few minutes.

But ultimately -- thanks in part to the sprightly ensemble -- the work all rights itself, and the play ends with a decidedly wicked sight gag (courtesy of designer Pip Leckenby) that audiences should remember for some time to come, even as they ponder the deeper meanings of the play.


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