When people are arguing over whether you’ve had more lifetime success than any other playwright in history, the answer doesn’t really matter. You’ve won already. Unless he’s worried that Lope de Vega is somehow badmouthing him to his mates back in the Spanish Golden Age, I think Alan Ayckbourn has pretty much established bragging rights. Though he doesn’t seem to be resting on his laurels. Neighbourhood Watch, his seventy-fifth play, is vintage stuff: funny, bleak and appallingly accurate.
Starting with a speech to open a memorial garden, the play immediately loops back to a couple moving into an English suburb. Matthew Cottle and Eileen Battye play play the brother and sister perfectly, with the right dose of likeability, obsessing over side-tables and jokes which they don’t realize have fallen flat. The cheerful, politely Christian pair are eager to see the best in everyone: they rather worry about the high fences around the gardens and the uncharitable talk about “the kids from That Estate” down the road. As the first act movement develops, there is trespassing, threats of lawsuits, misunderstandings and vandalism until the plot turns on one line: “Right everybody, you heard my brother. Tea first, then war!”
Ayckbourn’s genius is in blending the comic and serious, the familiar and the outré. As a suburban housing development descends into martial law, there are some broad brushstrokes – “You know the procedure. If you want to make a complaint, you must submit it to the Morality Subcommittee in writing within ten days”… “The pillory is a problem: some of these anorexic teenage girls just slip out and walk away. Makes a mockery of the whole thing” – but they’re always set within an entirely convincing world of neighbourhood meetings and cups of tea. The affair between Cottle’s increasingly power-hungry do-gooder and Frances Grey’s local temptress works both as a mock-epic love affair between a troubled siren and The Leader, and as a suburban carrying-on complete with grimy net curtains. Amy Loughton as the music teacher is superbly suited to Ayckbourn’s style, switching in a minute between effusive unworldly Mozart nerd and a woman whose life has been shaped by a relentless catalogue of male abuse. Her reveal speech held the entire audience silent and horrified without ever stepping over into “theatrical” or showy. What’s so haunting about Ayckbourn at his best is the way these two perspectives both make perfect sense of the facts: the homely is also the horrible, the laughable is also the grotesque.
The same applies to those ghastly ideas “theme” and “relevance”. Neighbourhood Watch never feels like an “issue” play, but the London riots, the increasingly draconian Law and Order rhetoric from the Conservative-led government, and a series of police shootings make it exceptionally timely. Ayckbourn plays hilariously with the suppressed violence and fury which underwrite the huge sales of tabloid papers which tell Middle England every day that the yobs are at their garden gate, the welfare scum are taking their taxes and the police are too scared to do anything about it. It’s funny. But it’s also pretty ugly.