The programme for Alan Ayckbourn’s new play, Neighbourhood Watch, at the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough has a shiny gold label on it to celebrate the fact that this is his seventy fifth play and the theatre’s three hundredth new play. They are right to be proud. That record shows great commitment and tenacity both on the part of Alan Ayckbourn himself and the whole company as they have grown and developed. I have seen a lot of those 300 plays myself over the last thirty years so it has also been an enormous personal gift to me as someone who loves theatre and would have seen a lot less of it in recent years without their presence. Mostly the standard has been very high. Even on the occasions when it hasn’t been (and given thirty years and so many productions this is inevitable) they have been there, a huge gift to a hometown that hasn’t always appreciated just how lucky it has been.
Neighbourhood Watch is the story of what happens when an eager but naïve couple who are newcomers to a housing development set up a neighbourhood watch scheme which spirals out of control leading to violence and death. It starts well with a heartfelt funeral oration which signals the ending and we are then taken back in time to watch the story unfold. It is a good idea which never really took off for me. It is rather ponderous with none of the trademark visual inventiveness that you get in Ayckbourn’s best work and not enough of the edge which can make you laugh and take a sharp intake of breath at the same time. Meetings are inherently dull and static and the play never quite manages to overcome that problem. The set, three large curved sofas set in a u shape right in the centre, also contributed to this. It would have been good to see the characters developed more outside this scenario and we needed to have a real sense of menace growing outside the house as the chaos and violence grew. Some of the events which might have been potentially most interesting take place off stage. The characters are nicely contrasted and without exception they are very well played. I particularly liked the two central performances, Matthew Cottle as Martin, a well meaning innocent who never really understands the subtleties of what is going on around him and Alexandra Mathie as his sister Hilda, a touching and sometimes chilling portrait of a misguided and fearful woman whose religion had helped her to lose her way.
I wish that I could be more positive. I sat among a full house, and some of them shared my mild disappointment. I think that the lady sitting next to me summed up the general feeling that I was hearing from those around me when she was asked whether she was enjoying it at the interval. “Yes”, she said “but I wouldn’t be in a hurry to come back.” She didn’t mean to the theatre, Alan Ayckbourn has a very loyal audience especially among her age group, she meant to this particular play. I shall be back too. This is a great little theatre and I am enjoying the way that it is developing under Chris Monks. My respect for both it and Alan Ayckbourn is unchanged. Both have more than earned my loyalty over the years.