The old adage “Appearances can be deceiving” applies well to the British suburban community Bluebell Hill, which is at the heart of Alan Ayckbourn’s play Neighbourhood Watch, now playing at 59E59 Theaters as part of their Brits Off Broadway Festival. The saying could apply as well as the script’s tone, which deceivingly starts off as a lighthearted comedy and soon delves into darker humor and deeper issues.
The play centers on two devotedly middle aged siblings: Martin (Matthew Cottle) and Alexandra (Hilda) Mathie. Although the two are still far from elderly, they seem to have given up on any kind of ambition or sexual fulfillment, living entirely celibately and repeatedly proclaiming their dedication to their Christian faith.
Just over the hill from the tranquil suburban community is a more dodgy housing development, within which inhabit less desirable citizens. Both Hilda and Martin gaze upon the view from their new home with trepidation, afraid of what threats might migrate up the hill. At the start of their housewarming party, Martin expresses his paranoia towards outside threats, tackling a young school boy crossing his lawn on the way home from his music lesson, snatching his clarinet case, believing it to be a deadly weapon.
As some of the stranger neighbors arrive at the home they express their own concern over keeping their community safe. Rod (Terence Booth) suggests that the case is most likely a sniper rifle, or perhaps grenades that will explode if the case is opened. It is clear that the paranoia and fear felt by the siblings are also felt by the neighborhood, inspiring them to form a neighborhood watch group. Among the other neighbors in the group is the humorously awkward Gareth whose wife Amy, the flame-haired town tart, who makes up for her (much older) husband’s frigidity by finding sexual fulfillment with other neighbors’ husbands.
There is also Dorothy, the neighborhood gossip who enjoys spreading whatever salacious news she catches wind of. The music teacher next door Magda (Amy Loughton) stands up to her domineering husband, Luther (Phil Cheadle) by accepting entry into the group, despite his protestations that they have all gone mad. His undoing later becomes one of the goals of the group.
Things begin to get more dramatic when Martin’s prized lawn gnome (a present from his dead mother) is smashed and tossed through a window. Clutching the plaster pieces in hand, Martin declares war on the unknown threats outside the community, taking the neighborhood watch group’s attitude to vigilante extremism. The group embarks on building giant walls with flood lights and barbed wire surrounding the community, monitoring those coming and going with guards and even building stocks in the center of town to punish wrongdoing members of the community. With the outside threats locked out, the group soon begins to turn its eye from keeping criminals out to pointing fingers at the moral actions of the neighborhood: trying to ban the consumption and alcohol and punishing philanderers. They even build stocks at the center of town to punish and humiliate wrongdoers.
Soon enough, Amy sets her eyes on the newly empowered Martin, begging him to kiss her. Once they kiss a switch flips on inside Martin conveying a sexual desire that has long been hidden. As fingers are pointed the watch group threatens to implode as dark secrets are exposed and Hilda plots revenge against Amy for sullying her brother. When the group attempts to employ neighborhood thugs (always off stage) to use violence to force their agenda, the group’s fate takes a dark turn.
Neighbourhood Watch is a thoroughly entertaining comedy whose success lies in part due to both skilled direction and acting. Jokes that might have been only mediocre with lesser performers are milked for every possible laugh through both excellent delivery and timing. This comedy is veteran playwright Ayckbourn’s seventy-fifth play, and it shows in the plays seamless structure and pacing. Aside from the play’s humor and entertainment value, it also raises larger issues about hiding ones true identity and the price one pays for repressing their true sexuality.