The barbarians are at the gate - or at least the bottom of the hill - in Neighbourhood Watch, Alan Ayckbourn’s latest prescient play about the current state of society and policing, as a group of apparently respectable residents of the Bluebell Hill Development start to take the law into their own hands as they are threatened by the looming unspecified anarchy of the nearby Mount Joy estate, rife - they say - with drugs and incest.
Matthew Cottle and Frances Grey in Neighbourhood Watch at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough Photo: Karl Andre Photography
Fortifying themselves in a private gated community - where security passes are implemented to gain access - and with stocks set up on the mini-roundabout to punish transgressors of their laws, their vision of Britain is taken from the Daily Mail, whose headlines are even referenced here - while another resident is promptly dismissed as a Guardian reader.
Ayckbourn - this is his 75th play - shows immense craft as well as art to fashion a brilliant social comedy that is also a fierce and provocative political drama anatomizing urban anxiety. The recent riots that engulfed London and other parts of Britain point to the prescience of a comment here, “I have a friend in the force and he tells me that, day to day, the police are hanging on by a whisker. It’s not just here, mark you. It’s nationwide. One breath of wind - anarchy!”
Yet Ayckbourn shows that their alternative to policing things isn’t any better, and riven with its own very human failings of longing and belonging. Ayckbourn’s own production motors smoothly on a constant laughter track, but poignant performances from Alexandra Mathie and Matthew Cottle draw on Ayckbourn’s familiar reservoir of pain and loneliness as the middle-aged brother and sister who move into the development and set up the neighbourhood watch.
This superbly acted, painfully funny and truthful play shows Ayckbourn in no danger of slowing down or having his age yet catch up with the number of plays he has written.