Home guard left exposed by sharp shooting Alan
When Ayckbourn premiered this, his 75th play, in Scarborough in 2011 it was an uncanny piece of programming in pre-dating the 2012 riots.
It was a short step from Cameron’s Big Society to the Broken Society.
Rugby Theatre have tapped into the zeitgeist with equal prescience in reviving it now, weeks after the Henry Vincent case and talk of the effect of police cuts still echoing. Director Steve Crump says: “It’s a story about how, left unchallenged, our beliefs can foster fear and paranoia. Ayckbourn invites us to consider our views on law and order. Are we safe in our beds when the police seem powerless? "
Although this is a heavy theme, of course Ayckbourn draws every ounce of comedic value from the scenario, and the players of Rugby Theatre do it more than justice (no pun intended). On entering the theatre the audience experience some of this fear as “Dirk”, complete with threatening bat, checks tickets and ID. He is one of the enforcers of Martin Massie’s Bluebell Hill Neighbourhood Watch.
Played like some latter-day Jerry Leadbetter from the Good Life, complete with a cardigan that only Nigel Farage would wear, Robert Warner-Pask as Martin, together with Cheryl Ryan, who plays his sister Hilda Massie, are the glue of the production. Cheryl Ryan opens the play delivering a five-minute front of curtain monologue with quiet but strong emotional force. The scene is now set for a play in flashback and it’s open season for mild pot-shots (pun intended) at the Middle class, the Daily Mail, Christianity, Lesbians , even Artists ,”there goes the neighbourhood”. It is to the credit of the lively cast that, as each future member of the Watch group is introduced, we can place their social status, back story and aspirations with all the prejudice the English class system can muster.
The disdain shown in JK Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy” is evident as macho Rod Trusser, played with blustering swagger by Richard Hill, describes the estate seen at the bottom of the hill: “Crime, violence, drugs, even incest”.
Although stereotypical, each character is worthy of some grudging sympathy as helpless products of their upbringing, from abusive fathers to devout Christians. Inevitably the good intentions of the of the Neighbourhood Watch spiral down into the very behaviour they wanted to protect themselves from. The spoof newsletters in the programme chronicle their unwitting escalation. This thought-provoking play deserved a fuller audience. Possibly the sunny evening kept the casual theatre-goer away. Some reference to adult themes including mild homophobia and domestic abuse with appropriately coarse language preclude younger family members. However if you enjoy having your prejudices challenged and funny bone tickled you will not be disappointed in catching this production. Despite his years, Alan Ayckbourn can still hit his intended target. Oh no, spoiler alert, another pun.