Two factors inspired Lally Katz to write Neighbourhood Watch: a conversation with Robyn Nevin and an encounter with a neighbour in the Melbourne suburb of Kew. Katz had suggested writing a play for Nevin, who stipulated that the character be ‘tough and funny’. Finally a suitable character presented herself in the form of the neighbour, an elderly Hungarian refugee, Ana. Katz and Ana became friends and the play was born.
First staged in 2011 at Belvoir Street Theatre, Neighbourhood Watch unfolds within an inner suburb and even contains a scene at a Neighbourhood Watch meeting. It is the perfect setting for a drama that hinges on fear and suspicion and explores the getting of wisdom that happens in the day-to-day world. Katz has juxtaposed people (mostly women) from different generations and connected their lives, to see what each can learn from the other. Experience and innocence collide and both young and old are transformed. The play feels fresh and relevant in its exploration of this theme, focussing on Ana’s entrenched wariness and the more pliant attitude of her Gen Y neighbour, Catherine (Megan Holloway).
Nevin, as the indomitable eighty-year-old Ana, is outstanding. ‘Tough and funny’, indeed. It is an intensely physical performance, in which every nuance of feeling and thought is conveyed through the inclination of the head or the twitch of a hand. The accent and demeanour are flawless and the emotional effect mesmerising. And, without a change of costume, Nevin is able to morph into a twelve-year-old girl without missing a beat.
There is little in the way of costume changes, no set, and minimal props, which appear for the time that they’re useful and are then discarded in the wings. What is left is a vast, grey stage with a revolving floor that brings movement and space to the action, propelling characters through time to pre-war Hungary and out into fantasy land. There is a looseness to the conception and the direction (by Simon Stone) that gives free play to the imagination and interpretation. At first, the banality of wheelie bins and computer games seems inconsequential and amusing, but slowly the details and repetitions are seen as the veneer under which we live and are connected at a deeper level. Even the ever-smiling neighbour Milinka (powerfully played by Kris McQuade) becomes more than a figure of fun, a key to the dramatic transformation.
Catherine, the alter ego of the playwright, is the only role that has much flexibility. Holloway adapts to the challenges of playing a young woman who is still maturing and affected by her relationships to everyone. She is suitably malleable, and particularly effective portraying the young girl in Ana’s memory, but at times lacks the stage presence required of a pivotal dramatic role. The other actors (Natasha Herbert, Akos Armont, Charlie Garber and Anthony Harkin) take multiple roles in the neighbourhood.
Neighbourhood Watch is a play that resonates after the curtain, if there were one, has fallen. It raises questions about our belief systems and our relationships, how we view the past and move into the future. It exposes us in our everyday permutations of humankind and with our generational flaws. If seeing ourselves onstage, warts and all, is at once both tedious and unnerving, it is what theatre is good at, holding up the mirror to nature, as Shakespeare said. And it takes a great actor like Robyn Nevin to capture that human nature and reflect it back to us with humour and gravity.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Lally Katz
Director Simon Stone
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 17 March – 26 April 2014
Times: Mon/Tues 6.30pm;Wed 1pm & 8pm;Thurs/Fri 8pm; Sat 4pm & 8.30pm.
Duration: 2 hours
Tickets $30 – 115
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800.