By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Alan Ayckbourn
Stephen Joseph Theatre Company
Bath Theatre Royal
Saturday 18th February 2012
My stance on Alan Ayckborn is long-standing: indifference if I can ignore it, antipathy if I’m forced to watch it. See my review of Way Upstream at Salisbury.
But then I went soft. I watched the 2011 TV documentary on him, full of fullsome accolades from actors and directors, and he seemed a pleasant person with knowing comments on writing plays. There were extracts from Neighbourhood Watch, then in production. They were saying it was one of his best plays. Yes, #75 (for as I said on the last review, the plays are numbered) was one of the best. **** Guardian, **** Telegraph,. And so we shelled out a swingeing £30 each to see it near the end of long runs at Bath. Direct from New York. Cast of eight. Virtually no set. If Lenny Henry in the NT’s Comedy of Errors last week was no expense spared, then this was no expense spent.
Right. Eight actors, all excellent. Let’s get that over with.
The plot revolves around a Neighbourhood Watch group. A brother and sister move into an estate of private houses, are instilled with irrational fear about the council estate at the bottom of the garden, and set up a neighbourhood watch group. They only attract a committee of six, but it grows and develops into a gated community, complete with a Punishment Committee, public stocks and a private army of thugs (dad and two sons) who they can’t control. This parallels in very thick lines the rise of the modern state, I assume.
Standard Neighbourhood Watch sign
To me, neighbourhood watch schemes reek of the late 80s / early 90s when the police were actively involved in setting them up, before losing interest and getting into speed cameras as revenue gathering instead. Around 1990, we were persuaded into being the ‘contact point’ for half our street. The poor local police officer had knocked on many doors and we were the only ones who worked at home, so answered the door. It meant him calling twice a year for a cup of tea and chatting amiably. We never had a public meeting, and about twice in three years we were asked to warn neighbours about bogus gas meter readers burgling houses. Then we moved. We now get an A4 newsletter through the door about once every three months, financed by Dorset Police. Several people complained that the last 10% of the newsletter was always a vehement (verging on rabid) anti-EU paragraph which had nothing to do with community matters. The police said that the guy typed and distributed several hundred newsletters and that was his payback. He was persuaded to tone the political propaganda down, but it means I can envisage extremists getting involved in neighbourhood watch groups, though our experience was that it wasn’t even a nosey neighbours syndrome. No one was particularly interested, but thought it reasonable to have police warnings from time to time about thefts from sheds, or the perennial Poole problem, beach huts being broken into and robbed of towels and plastic cups. Anyway, from this group of particularly nosey and fearful neighbours, Ayckbourn develops his plot.
Set? Well. Ayckbourn was famed for interesting set design. Not here. The set was dire. It was designed to be played in the round, and the set consisted of two curved sofas, a round fake fire, and a black set where the other side of an in the round production might be IF not situated in Bath’s ancient proscenium stage. Production photos from Scarborough show more curved bits of sofa making it “rounder”. The lighting was equally dull.
In the round: Only two bits of sofa at Bath Theatre Royal though
So it starts with the Real Inspector Hound / Comedy of Errors start, the LONG monologue. OK, there’s a time shift which is explained, but there’s still just the one person delivering a long monologue. I’d been interested because this is the original Scarborough production and cast directed by Ayckbourn himself. I thought that must have been the missing element every other time I disliked an Ayckbourn play – I’d never seen the original production. OK. But direction was very dull and very static. For much of the time people sat on the sofas and talked. Sometimes they moved a small coffee table around, perhaps in an attempt to provide activity. They must have reblocked it to fit a proscenium stage, and maybe a lot was lost. Direction? Null points. Lighting? Not just boring, but quite a lot of the time not very clear.
So the external elements of the production are poor. The main trouble is that the play is static, and the play is trite. The themes and issues are big ones (home security, unjustified fears about the “underclass”, gated communities, punishment, Christianity), but it’s the hallmark Ayckbourn treatment. Comedy, then a touch of absurdity / black comedy, falling into a desperate attempt to be meaningful, resulting in being trite. The comedy is on the level of browsing funny Greetings Cards. Go to the humour section. No one buys these cards. They’re merely there to keep the bored partner occupied while the interested partner browses.
Martin and Amy
I can’t take Ayckbourn characters, even when they are this well-acted. Matthew Cottle is a natural Brian Rix replacement should Whitehall farce be revived, but the character he’s playing, Martin, is unconvincing. He’s Ayckbourn’s SOFT WET MEEK MALE. Then we have Amy, who is his standard CONSTANTLY SEXUALLY-AVAILABLE FEMALE. Amy is definitely UP FOR IT, except with her meek cuckolded hubby. You can’t imagine they’d ever have got together, let alone that she would find Martin irresistible. Add in Madge, the BEATEN-UP FEMALE WHO DOESN’T MIND. Stereotypes? I haven’t started. Luther, Madge’s husband, is the BULLYING WIFE-BEATER. And Rod (a brilliant performance from Terence Booth) is the UPTIGHT AUTHORITY FIGURE. Add in Gareth, the SOMEWHAT PERVY WELSHMAN (Welsh has been the stereotype for this role since at least the reporter in Dad’s Army). The characters start off as interesting and develop into his stock parts. Even Hilda, the sister has to end up as a LESBIAN. Well, obviously. She’s not married.
Martin & broken gnome: The Flashpoint
The best bit in story terms is the two views on the clarinet confiscation by Martin (No plot spoiler). That’s a good story and well done, and well turned back. On the contrary, the “dramatic ending” of Martin is pretty much unexplained. Why did the police assume there was an armed criminal? It was all a bit sudden.
There is a whole agenda about Daily Mail readers. For years, we took both The Guardian and The Daily Mail. We wanted to read the media stuff in The Guardian, but as ELT writers we knew The Daily Mail to be the best souce for authentic articles which could be used in ELT textbooks. The serious papers had too many long words for learners; the tabloids had too much slang. The Daily Mail was just right. A friend who taught journalism said we had to be the only house that took both. In doing so, we noticed how every day The Guardian demonized ‘Daily Mail readers’ (as Conservative-voting anti-immigrant little Englanders) while The Daily Mail demonized “Guardian readers”: (as social workers who earn their living from chasing up equal opportunities and health and safety legislation). Then we realized how often the Mail reprinted Guardian articles and vice versa. We realized how much they needed each other. It’s a bit like Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle where the evil tyrant in the castle and the holy rebel in the jungle turn out to be acting in cahoots for the entertainment of the populace. Ayckbourn lampoons this brilliantly, building up the Neighbourhood Watch group as Daily Mail readers, then revealing that the obnoxious wife-beater takes The Guardian.
That’s the odd thing about Ayckbourn. He lampoons Daily Mail readers, but the reason he packs theatres is that he appeals to them, and they love coming to see themselves sent up. It’s quite a different theatre audience too, not just ‘larger.’ After the play, we spoke to different sets of friends who are avid theatre goers (the dozen plus times a year level). They can’t stand Ayckbourn. I conclude that he packs the theatres because he attracts people who don’t often go. And theatres really need an Ayckbourn a year, a Coward / Rattigan a year and a Shakespeare, directed at the school set book, to make a bit of money. So Ayckbourn should expand theatre going, but judging by the exceptional number of bums he gets on seats, the extra customers wait a year for the next one.
The play starts with a long monologue, which is classic ‘bad drama’ and ends with bad drama, using a massive visual aid as the punch-line. Compare the play to Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. There are similarities: one set in one room, one group of middle-class people, lots of action takes place off-stage, both are comedy with a tragic ending. Apart from the TV play, we have seen Abigail’s Party twice on stage with different casts: it still works brilliantly without the originals. But Abigail’s Party is intrinsically a five-star play. Neighbourhood Watch, in my most generous mood, is a two-star play (Yes, the Guardian and Telegraph are wrong). I drifted away twice in act one, and I wasn’t even tired, just bored rigid. The coughing extravaganza in the audience was all that kept me awake as droplets from coughs and sneezes hit the back of my neck. 90% of the “funny stuff” was over-familiar from other media. The wallpaper joke was one we used ourselves in a sketch back in the early 70s, and we’d got it from somewhere else. It was well done and well-acted, but then the entire play was well-acted. That’s not the issue. This is a quite reasonable sitcom masquerading as cutting-edge theatre. The touch of absurdity in the idea that the scheme develops into a gated community is no more than the level of absurdity in half a dozen sitcoms, (e.g.) One Foot In The Grave. At two hours twenty minutes, it’s also at least half an hour longer than the plot can sustain. With a less accomplished cast ten years down the road, that’ll be an hour too long.
In recent weeks we have seen ecstatic applause and standing ovations … Jerusalem, One Man Two Guv’nors, Comedy of Errors, Romeo & Juliet (even if I was very critical of the last). This particular Saturday afternoon Bath crowd gave muted polite clapping (perhaps they were exhausted from two hours of coughing). There was no second call. Yet the papers say it’s been received so well. Not this week with this audience. It’s a mediocre play, lacking the dynamics of great theatre, that confirms my most negative feelings about Ayckbourn as a writer.
Zero. But as I always argue against it, I think in this case the role of Amy could have greatly benefitted from being a smoker.
£3 is par for the course. Uninformative compared to RSC or NT. Ayckbourn sings the praises of cutting a play to its essentials. which is the profitable way to do it.