Neighbourhood Watch

Neighbourhood Watch is a 2011 play by Alan Ayckbourn. I went to the Bull Theatre in North London to see a performance by Garden Suburb Theatre.

The play satirises “middle England” and Neighbourhood Watch schemes. It begins when brother and sister Martin and Hilda move to a new estate which they feel is being threatened by hoodlums. They decide to take steps to keep guard on their estate, but soon things get out of hand, with ID cards, locked gates, armed patrols, and even a set of stocks.

The performances were good and the play was very amusing, a commentary on the dangers of leaving law and order to well-meaning volunteers.

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Confusions

Confusions is a series of linked short plays by Alan Ayckbourn, each play featuring a character from a previous one. I attended an amateur production by the St Michael’s Players in Chiswick.

Originally premiered in 1974, the plays are Mother Figure, in which a harassed mother of young children is visited by her elderly neighbours and ends up treating them like kids; Drinking Companion, in which her husband, a travelling salesman, attempts to chat up a couple of reluctant ladies over drinks in the hotel lobby; Between Mouthfuls, focusing on two couples in the restaurant of the hotel and their extra-marital affairs; Gosforth’s Fête, in which the wife of one of the couples attends a village fête which goes horribly wrong; and A Talk in the Park, in which various individuals sit on park benches and pour out their woes to their reluctant fellow park visitors. This production omitted A Talk in the Park; apparently it is quite common for productions to include only the first four plays, as the last one seems to mark quite a change in tone.

I thought the plays were linked together cleverly, and the actors performed them really well. This production involved many different actors: though Confusions was originally written for five actors sharing the parts among themselves, it’s understandable that a non-professional company would want to spread things out a bit more in order to allow more people to take part and also to take some of the pressure off actors who more than likely have a full time job and other commitments to contend with. I thought they did a really good job, and I found the evening extremely enjoyable.

How the Other Half Loves

Prolific playwright Alan Ayckbourn is seeing another of his plays revived in London: this time it’s the turn of 1971 classic How the Other Half Loves, the story of two couples, the Fosters and the Phillips, in troubled marriages. Mrs Foster and Mr Phillips have been having an affair, and use another couple, the Featherstones, as an excuse. When the Fosters and the Phillips end up inviting the Featherstones to dinner on consecutive nights, chaos ensues as desperate measures are taken to ensure secrets are kept.

The strength of the play is the way in which Ayckbourn weaves time together, so the dinner parties which take place on different nights actually happen simultaneously on stage. I admire his skill a great deal, as he manages to pull off an incredibly complex feat successfully. On the down side, it does take a while to build up to this superlative scene and I thought the play overall was a bit long. I liked the set, which managed to convey both houses at once through the use of opposing colour schemes.

I must admit I didn’t find the central affair of the piece, between Jenny Seagrove’s Fiona and Jason Merrells’ Bob, very convincing. However, I really liked Nicholas Le Provost’s performance as Frank: he had all the best lines (I’m going to call toilet roll “bathroom stationery” from now on), and I also liked Tamsin Outhwaite as Bob’s wife Teresa, a worn-out new mother.

Considering the time in which it was written, the play is hardly a bastion of feminism and to be fair I wouldn’t expect it to be. Having said that, I was impressed with Gillian Wright’s character Mary Featherstone who, after being pushed around by her husband (Matthew Cottle’s William) for the duration of the play, eventually puts her foot down. I would have liked her to go further, to be honest, but even so I was inwardly cheering.

In some ways, this is a dated and old-fashioned play, but it’s still worth seeing for its clever structure. I did find it genuinely entertaining.

By Jeeves

Originally created as Jeeves in 1975, a collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Alan Ayckbourn (lyrics), and rewritten in 1996 as By Jeeves, this musical was performed by Thistles Musical Theatre Company at the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford. Being a Lloyd Webber completist, I knew I wanted to see this, particularly as I love Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories. The show is based on various stories, particularly The Code of the Woosters.

The setting is a village hall, where Bertie Wooster is called upon to make a speech and play his banjo. When his banjo goes missing, the ever-reliable Jeeves orders another and fills up the time before it should arrive with stories of Bertie’s exploits. Village residents “become” the characters in Bertie’s story, and the props, used imaginatively, are taken from the hall.

With a talented cast and a number of good tunes (I recognised the melody of one of the songs from the earlier The Likes of Us) including “Banjo Boy” and “It’s a Pig”, as well as a witty book staying true to the spirit of the original Wodehouse stories, I found By Jeeves to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Things We Do For Love

I visited the Churchill Theatre in Bromley in order to see Alan Ayckbourn’s 1990s play Things We Do For Love, directed by Laurence Boswell. I must admit the main reason I wanted to see it was the presence of Natalie Imbruglia, former Neighbours star and singer. She is superb in her stage debut: her character Nikki is naive and vulnerable, needy and girlish but still likeable, and her pain when she discovers the betrayal of her best friend Barbara and fiance Hamish is deeply felt and moving.

The other actors are also excellent. Simon Gregor is disturbingly creepy as the postman obsessed with Barbara, while Claire Price is superb as Barbara herself. Despite her character’s bossiness and often-contrary views, she is vulnerable on the inside and in fact she was my favourite character in the play. Completing the quartet is Edward Bennett as Scotsman Hamish, whose strong chemistry with Barbara is entirely believable. The scenes in which the two characters spar, fight and argue are among the best, and surprisingly funniest, in the play.

I loved this, much more than the recent production of A Small Family Business at the National. It is wonderfully funny, but it is also bittersweet: for all the laughs, there is a hint of something darker.

A Small Family Business

This production of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1980s play A Small Family Business is running in the Olivier at the National Theatre. This means that inevitably, we get to see the infamous drum revolve in use once again, giving us a superb view of the intricate and impressive set, which is basically a multi-storey house.

The play itself doesn’t quite live up to the amazing set, but it is amusing and pertinent enough. It stars Nigel Lindsay as hero Jack McCracken, who takes over the family furniture business only to find that it is a hotbed of corruption and racketeering. Though in many ways decent and honest, in trying to save his daughter from a shoplifting charge events run away with him and he ends up as corrupt as any of his family.

Though it’s a tad long, it’s entertaining and funny, and the ending rather shocked me. Ayckbourn’s Thatcher-era commentary on corrupted values isn’t his best play, but it’s worth seeing.

Season’s Greetings

The weekend before I went home for Christmas, I managed to fit in a good number of shows. One of these was Season’s Greetings, a suitably festive play by that master of Seventies comedy, Alan Ayckbourn.

The play covers the four-day period from Christmas Eve to 27 December and follows a dysfunctional family as they try to get through Christmas. A drunken cooking session, broken toys, a seemingly interminable puppet show and sexual tension – not to mention an uncle obsessed with guns – combine to create a highly entertaining show.

Abigail Rosser is particularly good as Belinda, whose house it is, and manages to remain likeable despite her actions during the play. I also liked Matthew Carter as Bernard, whose annual Christmas puppet show threatens to fray his own temper and those of the others around him.

This is a very funny show and the closing scene of the first half, and the scene with the puppet show, are especially hilarious. However, there is an undercurrent of sadness running through the play with frustrations, lost dreams, and feelings of failure ensuring that the play has depth.