A few thoughts on Ayckbourn's play.
Hang on I can hear you saying. He can’t review Neighbourhood Watch, he were in the bloody thing. And what’s more Milord, he beds the woman who directed it. Bloody disgrace. Have you anything to say in your defence? Well yes, actually. Lots. I am perfectly entitled to pass my comments on Neighbourhood Watch – the play – and my experience on being in this particular production. It’s my bloody blog after all. That’s three bloodys – now four – reflecting both my age and heightened level of seasonal grumpiness but we shall let that pass. All I shall say is that theatre, in its various forms, has figured pretty large in my life for nigh on sixty years, and for most of them Alan Ayckbourn has never been far from my thoughts or involvement. Scarborough’s first citizen has kept me and thousands of others in harmless occupation for almost half a century. And we all love him. Witness our little production at Toddington’s delightful theatre and last year when I did Table Manners with my Harpenden group. Full houses all round. Folks cannot get enough of him. Over two hundred and fifty people came away from St Andrews Neighbourhood Watch full of their own opinion, and being theatre there would be two hundred and fifty different ones, but came they did. When all else fails in amateur theatre, when the coffers run dry, do an Ayckbourn goes the cry.
I shall name drop here. I once spent an illuminating day with Alan Ayckbourn when he was at the height of his powers, turning out masterpieces of middle class comedic angst by the bucket load. The Norman Conquests, Relatively Speaking, Season Greetings, Absent Friends, Absurd Person Singular. All rich in the frailties of human nature and, generally, pretty thin on plot. That is what made them special. Disparate folks thrown together in situations they could not avoid. Our fun came from sitting back and wallowing in the refined way they usually went at each other’s throats. Their strength was their interconnecting baggage, an essential ingredient of Ayckbourn’s best plays. Neighbourhood Watch does not have that richness which is why it sits firmly in the middle of this Master’s canon, still miles in front of lesser modern dramatists, and may explain its failure to make the West End. Just my opinion of course. The central characters, Martin and Hilda, are new to the area and have no pre conceived ideas about anyone. They, like the audience, have to learn as the play progresses. The three supporting couples, I think I can loosely use that term, would rarely interact offstage. Only the absurdist situation throws them all together. All great fun for both actors and audience and heightening in the second half into black farce, but the laughter comes from that farcical situation not from recognition. No self respecting police force would allow anyone to build stocks on a public roundabout or seal off their middle class development from council estate yobbos. However attractive the proposition might be. And it is that essential recognition of oneself in seemingly ordinary but fraught situations that sees Ayckbourn at his best. The Bluebell Development folks of Neighbourhood Watch offer a rich seam to mine for laughs but, except spasmodically, little insight into the human condition that litters the Ayckbourn classics.
For those interested I spent that day (1974) with Ayckbourn when he was rehearsing his new play, Confusions, and he smoked lots of my fags and gave me a real insight into how he works. A theatrical icon and a great bloke. Bit like Martin in Neighbourhood Watch. Always willing to help other people. And in our production our Martin, and the others, certainly helped me. When you have been treading the boards for nigh on sixty years you have few illusions and even less ambition. I had my own personal reasons for getting involved in this one and, lines delivered in approximately the right order, I am relieved to get back to blogging and directing. Only the young or the almost young can find any real pleasure or satisfaction in performing on a stage. Unless it is for money. But I have to say, grumpily or otherwise, they were a great team to work with and, as a bonus, in a super little theatre. TADS, like Barn at Welwyn, St Albans Company of Ten, and Dunstable Rep have that one precious asset that ensures straight theatre for amateurs will survive. Their own place. I ain’t singling anyone out in this very personal blog on St Andrews Players production of Neighbourhood Watch. Except one. Paul Horsler. TADS Theatre Manager. All of us, cast, company, and that woman I go to bed with give him a big thank you. And Alan Ayckbourn of course. I reckon, over the past forty odd years, he has repaid those fags in spades. Roy Hall