Neighbourhood Watch

Ensemble Theatre, December 18

Neighbourhood res
Jamie Oxenbould (as Gareth) shows Bill Young, Brian Meegan and Gillian Axtell the difference between his stocks and a pillory. Photo: Natalie Boog.

Fear is part of the human condition. Across the centuries the western world has had its faddish ones: eternal hellfire, plague, communism, nuclear obliteration, airborne terrorism and, if you’re American, health-care. But the fear to cross eras and continents is that which grips the “haves” about the designs of the “have-nots”. It drives everything from law-and-order electioneering to gated communities.

This is the spongy cushion on which sits Alan Ayckbourn’s 75th – and not his sharpest – play. The satirical elements lack bite and the humour often slumps to that of the baldest British sit-coms. That is not to say there are no laughs, but too often the dialogue is manipulated to attempt to generate them, rather than sustaining its own reality.

Nonetheless Ayckbourn was on to something in his depiction of middle-class fear atop Bluebell Hill, which has been encroached upon by a housing development for, well, less desirable examples of the species. Ayckbourn’s conceit is that the Bluebell residents themselves become singularly undesirable as they set about establishing defences against what seems to be a largely imagined fear. All the characters emerge morally compromised, whether being complicit in crime or just guilty of malicious gossip.

Anna Crawford’s cast is headed by Brian Meegan and Fiona Press as the brother-and-sister team who are new to the patch and manage to ramp up the fear levels amid a little lust and religion. All the actors’ attempts to turn in worthy performances are hampered, however, by this Ayckbourn whim of offering naturalistic dialogue one moment and hammy laugh-lines the next. Consequently the characters remain the playwright’s puppets rather than being creatures we can care about.

The play’s saving grace is its black humour, primarily espoused through Gareth (Jamie Oxenbould), an unemployed engineer with a fetish for medieval punishment devices. He knocks up the neighbourhood’s set of stocks in a prominent roundabout, and had he been the protagonist Ayckbourn may have had to labour less over his laughs.

Until January 25.