People are thought to mellow when they get older, but that doesn’t seem to apply to 72-year-old Alan Ayckbourn, prolific Brit scribe who has penned a play or more each season since 1959 for the Stephen Joseph Theater in the Yorkshire city of Scarborough, where he lives. There are certainly no signs of mellowing in Play #75, “Neighbourhood Watch,” a bleakly hilarious social satire about a group of suburban homeowners whose initially well-meaning efforts at community protection take a totalitarian turn that ultimately transforms the neighborhood into an armed camp.
It all begins innocently enough when nebbishy Martin Massie (Matthew Cottle, offering an inspired version of the neutered English male) and his diffident older sister, Hilda (Alexandra Mathie, who grows and grows on you), move into the pleasant development of Bluebell Hill and hold a housewarming party to meet their neighbors.
Sly Dorothy (Eileen Battye) is the community busybody. The military-trained Rod (Terence Booth) is the unofficial watchdog. Gareth (Richard Derrington) is the local cuckold, constantly running after his slutty younger wife, Amy (Frances Grey). Mousy Magda (Amy Loughton), a music teacher, is the browbeaten wife of Luther (Phil Cheadle), who doesn’t much care to associate with any of his neighbors — except slutty Amy.
The characters are all certifiable types, but Ayckbourn has a knack for those defining quirks that create personalities. And because the actors have all been drawn from the company players at his resident theater, the ensemble work is flawless.
Martin and Hilda receive much more individual attention, since theirs are the transformative roles. The proof of their mildness is initially defined by their garden ornaments. Martin has a touching affection for a garden gnome he’s named Mr. Montmorency, and Hilda, who often refers to her Christian beliefs, is extremely attached to a plaster statue of Jesus.
The sight of an intruder in their garden is the initial inspiration for the Neighbourhood Watch Committee that Martin organizes to protect these precious household saints from being stolen. The neighbors do their bit by working themselves up about a nearby low-income housing project.
Rod is especially wary of these “riff raff and vermin” and their arsenals of knives and guns, but his neighbors seem to find the morals of the lower classes even more threatening. So before long, everyone in the neighborhood is building fences — tall ones, made of industrial strength chain link and topped with razor wire — to keep out the outside world and all its perceived threats.
At this point (and somewhat belatedly), Ayckbourn picks up the pace and invites us to watch Martin’s transformation (ever so subtly executed by Cottle) from a mild-mannered wimp who doesn’t want to lose his garden ornaments into a tin-pot dictator who relishes his power to make people do what he wants. Under his leadership the Watch Committee erects medieval stocks in the square, conducts armed patrols and body searches, and essentially turns Bluebell Hill into an armed fortress.
The farcical events arising from these elaborate mechanisms aren’t built as sturdily as some of Ayckbourn’s other plots, and the comedy suffers from the strain. But if “Neighbourhood Watch” isn’t as brilliant as, say, “The Norman Conquests” or “Absurd Person Singular,” it’s still a very funny — and wonderfully nasty — commentary on your neighbors and mine.