Alan Ayckbourn’s Neighborhood Watch (2011)
©2015 by Eileen Warburton
“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Walt Kelly, Pogo, 1970
In early August 2011, riots broke out in many English towns following the police shooting of an unarmed London man. Prime Minister David Cameron was soon making speeches about Britain as a “broken society,” promising to “confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations.” In Florida in February 2012, young Trayvon Martin was gunned down by a man who was captain of a volunteer neighborhood watch. Tragically, incidents like these seem to be happening more and more as citizens trust the official police less and take the law into their own hands. Vigilantism is a powerful undercurrent in most societies, one celebrated on film and television, in folksong and story.
But even before the PM had begun to pontificate about “Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control!” . . . before George Zimmerman drew his weapon on an unarmed black kid, Alan Ayckbourn had presciently used live theatre to explore the very dark, very comic underbelly of a middle-class community of self-righteous vigilantes.
An upstanding pair, middle-aged brother and sister, are newcomers in a comfortable, suburban neighborhood that borders a public housing estate. Martin and Hilda are avowed Christians, kindly folk, affable and a little boring. While preparing for a housewarming party, there’s a little incident with a kid from the projects who takes a short cut by climbing their back fence. Their new neighbors regale them with “them and us” tales. Everyone complains that the police are lax in keeping order. Unsettled by all this, Martin suggests that they establish a neighborhood watch council to monitor the goings-on in Bluebell Hill. They mean well. They think they mean well.
Alan Ayckbourn’s characters usually begin in conventional bourgeois social patterns and then, as the situation allows, they blossom into surprising people, discovering unknown abilities and traits. Here, given power and opportunity, the Bluebell Hill community begins to evolve into a cozy little police state. Chosen as leader, mild-mannered milquetoast Martin morphs into a charismatic petty dictator. Hilda, who once refused to listen to gossip, becomes a sly, backstage manipulator. The morose village cuckold finds vengeance as the creator of the stocks erected on the village roundabout and the designer of imaginative punishments for local offenders. The ex-military man is revealed as a paranoid sadist, patrolling the suburban development armed and engaging a couple of ex-con enforcers who escalate matters alarmingly. Soon there are blinding security lights, an electrified fence, dogs, a guarded gate, checkpoints, and identification cards. Tired of looking out for minor pilfering, the committee begins prurient snooping into the domestic arrangements of the neighbors. In this atmosphere once fueled by good intentions, the old so-human motives of sexual desire, power hunger, and the settling of scores begin to work their ancient mischief.
Alan Ayckbourn is probably the most prolific playwright living today. Now aged 76, he has written and directed 79 plays. 79 good plays. At least, that was at the last count. All this while running a theatre for 40-some years, managing a company for the National, directing his own and other playwrights’ work, and, in his youth, acting onstage. With his first play in 1959, he discovered a gift for dialogue that exposes contemporary suburban society in comedy so close to the bone that it hurts to laugh (although you can’t help laughing).
Ayckbourn was born in London in 1939 into a domestic arrangement of straying parents, divorces, stepparents, step-siblings, and uncomfortably blended families. His father, whom he barely knew, was a concert violinist, his mother was a successful short story writer. The confused family relationships became a hallmark of Ayckbourn’s domestic comedies, along with characters who are outliers in their family circle or neighboring community, who try to somehow fit in. Alan was shipped off at 7 to boarding school, which he left at age 17. He found his way into the theatre immediately, landing entirely by chance in 1957, in the company of the Scarborough Library Theatre. Ayckbourn has stayed with this provincial troupe (now the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round) for a lifetime—acting, directing, running the theatre, and writing prolifically and with astonishing creativity. In its company he found family, including two wives, two sons, and his closest friends. In its first artistic director Stephen Joseph, young Ayckbourn found an adopted father.
Stephen Joseph is one of the largely unsung heroes of contemporary theatre. Against voracious criticism in the hide-bound English stage era of the 1950s, Joseph introduced theatre-in-the-round, the concept of a stripped-down stage, and intimacy with the audience. Going it alone, he re-introduced the notion of a play carried entirely by its characters. He traveled theatre to dozens of British towns that had no playhouse or stage, building provincial audiences in a time completely dominated by the West End in London. And he was a notable mentor to young talent—Harold Pinter, for example, and Alan Ayckbourn.
After Stephen Joseph’s untimely death in 1967, Ayckbourn assumed the roles of Director of Productions and, in 1972, Artistic Director, a position he held until 2009. With rare exceptions, all his plays premiered in Scarborough at the Library or Stephen Joseph Theatre, although more than 40 of the plays went on to be produced in London’s West End or at the National Theatre. So Ayckbourn has had the singular luck of creating his characters in partnership with a company he knows inside and out, writing his stories for actors who ‘get’ him, and bringing it all to life on a stage he helped to build.
The opinions expressed in this essay are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.