I saw this show with some trepidation. I’d heard very different reports about the production and I will admit I walked into the theatre with low expectations. After all, Belvoir hadn’t yet pulled one out of the bag for me this year in their upstairs theatre and I thought I may be seeing a more polished version of something as thin and superficial as ‘The Business’.
So it was a pleasant surprise that I enjoyed ‘Neighbourhood Watch’. I was sitting in the second row, which was probably prime position for this quite intimate drama- as friends who were seated up the back did not connect with the play as well as I did. Maybe this is one of those plays where your engagement is affected by where in the theatre you are located.
Chiefly, the play was all about Robyn Nevin. She was superb. Just ask her, she’ll tell you. So it pains me to say that in this show, I would have to agree with her. The play was written for Nevin, literally. Her role as Ana, a lonely, elderly Hungarian immigrant, living in the suburbs of Sydney, who forms a friendship with young Catherine, was so well crafted that if you hadn’t told me it was Nevin, I wouldn’t have known. Her transformation was an impressive display of her skill as an actor.
Kris McQuade also did a wonderful job of bringing minor characters such as Milova, an old neighbour of Ana’s, to life. Her breathless heaving up and down the stairs was comedic, pitiful and engaging. In fact the strongest roles in this play were carried by these seasoned performers. The others were good but didn’t always hit the mark in development and pathos quite like Nevin and McQuade. Charlie Garber was likeable, Stefan Gregory, Helen Mitchell and Ian Meadows fulfilled multiple side characters and Megan Holloway did a good job of playing probably the most flawed main character in the script. More of that later.
Director Simon Stone’s love of the revolving stage actually served him well in this production. The most impressive use of designer Dale Ferguson’s stage was the lovely movement of the tram as it took the audience on a journey through time and location and captured the rhythm and eventual tension of isolation and danger. I was not so enamoured by the carpet engulfing the whole set, perhaps representing the padding, false covering of reality or the grey pallor of suburban life. The metaphor was not completely convincing. But I forgave it as it didn’t distract from the action.
Perhaps the most flawed part of the show was in Lally Katz’s script itself. Don’t get me wrong, the script held its own and was generally very good. But I would say it was one or two drafts from being complete. Whilst I loved the transitions between past and present and its stylistic experimentation between fantasy and reality, the character of Catherine, the representation of Lally Katz herself, was underdeveloped. This is always dangerous ground for writers, trying to craft semi-autobiographical characters into three dimensional personas. Often writers struggle to flesh out detail and objective perspective or complexity on characters that are representational of themselves because we can never really be subjective about ourselves. The character of Catherine felt like she was a vehicle for Ana and therefore her own story didn’t quite have the punch or impact you would want in the final denouement. The writing also seemed to want to avoid the risk of pushing the emotions of the audience in key moments at the end. It’s a risk that if you go for it, it may become trite and melodramatic, but I wish Katz took the risk because the payout, had it worked, would have created this current engaging play into a powerful piece of theatre. I notice that the production had already deviated from the script, as you do when you have the benefit of being able to workshop and perform it with a strong and appropriate team. I could pass judgement on young Eamonn Flack as dramaturg, casting criticism regarding his age and ability to truly work with insight into a predominantly female, immigrant, ageing world. But I’ll just let it sit there and let you decide. A bit more reflection and time will see Katz’s script refined and a terrific Australian play in the works.
Overall I enjoyed this show and I don’t think I was alone.