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Fatal Attraction of the Garden Gnome: Neighbourhood Watch

by on 15 March 2017

Neighbourhood Watch

by Alan Ayckbourn

Barnes Community Players

at The Old Sorting Office, 7th to 11th March

Review by Thomas Forsythe

Power corrupts!  Well it would wouldn’t it, if you were thrust into power after your life-long pal had been decapitated?  But don’t forget that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Alan Ayckbourn’s Neighbourhood Watch takes a wry mischievous look at suburban paranoia as it spreads across the community of oh-too-recognisable characters on the Bluebell Hill Development.   Ayckbourn develops the turns of the plot steadily from possible to unrealistic to hysterical, cascading in a reducto ad absurdum argument that requires a more than usual suspension of disbelief.

Thirty-something unmarried siblings Sarah and Martin Massie have just moved into a “respectable” neighbourhood on the fringe of a “rough” estate.  They throw a tea-party as a house warming for their new neighbours, and the first to arrive are Rod Trusser, super-suspicious security specialist (retired), Dorothy Doggett, the local busy-body, and morose multi-cuckolded mechanic, Gary Janner.  All is very cosy until Martin discovers a young intruder in his garden, who kicks him in the shin before running off, dropping a small case as he goes.   Martin is willing to shrug it off, but Rod is obsessed with the idea that the case contains a modified sniper rifle, or bobby-trap bomb.  (It actually contains a child’s clarinet.)   They decide to form a neighbourhood watch, but at the first meeting Martin’s beloved-since-childhood garden gnome is thrown through the French windows, knocking off its head.  Now it is war!  – a war declared to stem the rising tide of ruffians – and the watch become volunteer vigilantes.  With a Martin as its leader, Bluebell Hill evolves rapidly over four months into a repressive gated community, with sophisticated security systems and draconian medieval stocks and pillory as punishment for transgressors.

It is this sense of the absurd that presents an ambitious challenge to a cast, who need pace and good comic timing to pull off.   Barnes Community Players production set about meeting this challenge with gleeful gusto and, to a large extent, achieved that ambition.

Alexa Bushell was impressive as the prim and proper Sarah (Hilda in Ayckbourn’s script), all buttoned up, both literary and figuratively, in her twin set, bustling with benevolence.  Her facial expressions, particularly the withering glares, were worth the ticket price.   One felt that Alexa Bushell’s secure acting was the anchor for the cast.  If so, Steve Bannell, as Martin, was the king-pin, certainly the plot revolved around his character, as he “progressed” from meek younger brother to Daily Mail super-hero, whilst still showing bemused bewilderment at the wicked ways of the world.

As Dorothy, the garrulous gossip, Marie Bushell clearly relished the part and portrayed its nuances and Dorothy’s hypocrisies:  propriety versus prurience, and passivity versus pretentiousness.  (She was in the press meant she ran the local small-ads.)

Rod is a reworking of Uncle Harvey in Ayckbourn’s earlier Season’s Greetings, a man unhinged by his own exaggerated suspicions.  Rodger Hayward-Smith, as a seasoned character actor in this role, tended to overdo the hesitancy of his character’s wariness and scepticism, (and one did wish that he would not constantly deliver his lines to the floor).  Nevertheless, he put across well Rod’s outlandish “bring-back-the-birch” approach, his ruthlessness (here was a man not adverse to employing petty criminals with baseball bats) and his mounting obsessive paranoia.  Rod is not one to pass on the hyperbole, his crescendo of vitriol on the contiguous “sink” estate, accusing its inhabitants of “incest” in their “Sodom and Gomorrah”.

Not that Martin in his later manifestations was short on the hyperbole, which culminated in an impassioned monologue, in a tight hard spotlight, the man of steel.  Bannell’s skilful delivery was reminiscent of a late Barack Obama in both stance and rhetoric.


Steve Bannell as Martin Massie.  Photograph by Mel Lawston

But great men have their weaknesses: along comes the vampish Amy Janner, sizzling into the scene.   As Bluebell Hill’s femme fatale, Kat Walker excelled.  None of Bluebell’s red-blooded men were impervious to her extra-marital allure, even Martin, pillar of his new community.  This sultry siren soon seduced Martin, his awkwardness dissolving to her charms.  Now corrupted, his only reply to this sister’s rebuke that “she is the child of the Devil” is “if I’m going to Hell, I’m going to enjoy it on the way down!”.

Amy’s hapless husband is Gary, eating himself away with impotent fuming.  Andrew Williams played Gary as a quiet melancholic, whose bitterness was internalised.  He turns to fetish fantasies and re-engineers his skills as a mechanic to constructing the stocks and pillories for the vigilantes.  Not that Sarah is adverse to his constructing a chastity belt for Amy, although she does divert him to tar-and-feathering, or rather pixie-green paint and feathering, pixie green being Sarah’s favourite colour, derided by Amy.

For humour, and especially black humour, to work, it should be leavened with pathos.  Emilia Lederleitnerova brought this sentiment to the play beautifully as the timid and reticent Magda, a Polish émigrée and teacher of reeded instruments.  She is fearfully in thrall of her brutish husband Luther Bradley, played with energy by Patrick van de Bergh.   Luther is unrepentantly amoral: he is having an affair with Amy, and when it is discovered that the youthful intruder was one of Magda’s pupils, he tries to extort “compensation” from Martin.

So we have sex, violence and corruption: just the thing for a comedy you might hesitate to say.  But, then again, this is Ayckbourn, and Ayckbourn at his most contrary.  So, in a play packed with hyperbole, exaggeration and overstatement, we need an OTT denouement.  And it comes as all breaks down in mayhem.  The criminals, set on retribution, set fire to the next door house (mistaking it for Martin’s) and as the looters arrive, police helicopters hover overhead.  The police marksmen mistakenly believe that Martin has a grenade.  It is in fact Sarah’s garden statuette of Jesus and, as he holds it up to show them, they shoot.

At Martin’s memorial service there is an unveiling of a giant … … garden gnome.

The monumental gnome (uncredited in the programme) was the redeeming feature of a lacklustre set comprising only furniture in the black draped Old Sorting Office acting area, although in a strange way this added to the claustrophobic feel of a neighbourhood under siege.  It was left to Andy Hale’s lighting to rescue the design.

Director Terry Oakes, making his debut with BCP, was blessed with some strong actors, but more pace and timing could have helped others, as could more dynamic stage placements.  Notwithstanding this, the Neighbourhood Watch company have presented a good production of a difficult play, but most importantly, one which made for an hilarious and highly entertaining evening.

As the finger-wagging aphorism puts it, the way to Hell (even Martin’s enjoyable way) is paved with good intentions.  Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck has the same theme, but not the compassion of Neighbourhood Watch, and certainly none of the wicked humour of Ayckbourn when he is in full flight.  Certainly Martin Massie’s well-meaning intercessions start off well but go in the wrong direction, with calamitous consequences.  What turns the good intentions off course?  The heady sniff of power of course.  Add a sniff of perfume and a hint of fame and there is absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Oh, I wonder what happened to the headless gnome?

Thomas Forsythe

March 2017


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