Monday, 7 November 2011

Neighbourhood Watch

I went to see this play at the weekend, Alan Ayckbourn's latest. It was largely magnificent: a comic examination of the latent fascism in the heart of every Daily Mail reader. An ageing brother and sister move to a housing estate perched on a hill overlooking a rough council estate. Class hatred leads to paranoia, fear and a siege mentality as the central couple and their new neighbours interfere every more intrusively into the lives and mores of their community, justified as enhancing safety: democracy is quickly forgotten.

The gradual shifts into moral and physical oppression were done beautifully: the audience - largely  exactly the same age, social class and sartorial appearance as the characters - chuckled in agreement as those on stage expressed the kinds of moralistic, unjustified attitudes they themselves shared: but not all of them quite understood that they were being satirised. Ayckbourn understands his audience perfectly: he takes them seriously while making it clear that they too should examine their prejudices - and he's funny to boot. One character's

The only jarring note was the rather gratuitous introduction of a lesbian sub-theme. The brother and sister at the heart of the play were also the causes of this dystopia's downfall: despite their respectability, they condoned lynch mobs and gangs of heavies, and both of them gave in to their repressed sexual desire: he for the wife of an inadequate comrade, she for the abused wife of a neighbour. Two other characters, who never appeared, were also lesbians - a naval officer and a judo instructor. It just felt a bit forced, as though an ageing playwright was putting in a dash of something risqué for his audience, without quite being sure of his cultural grounds: the lesbian element felt too insubstantial to be a serious theme, and therefore I wasn't convinced that it wasn't a bit of titillating decoration.

Overall, I thought the play worked very well, and the acting was magnificent: changes of pace and tone portrayed beautifully, character traits expressed through appearance and verbal tics very subtly. Last week, I gave a lecture on security-conscious architecture actually contributing to fear and social decay: how I wish I'd been able to send the students off to watch this play.

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