Big hearted production sidesteps overt sentimentality and challenges audience to look to home for stories of compassion and human connection.

Southbank Theatre
 
20 March, 2014
 
The suburbs are strange and lonely places in the plays of Lally Katz. The Kew of Neighbourhood Watch bears little resemblance to the leafy community described in real estate copy. It's a harsh and grey world where neighbours keep to themselves, each nursing their own private sorrow.
 
The weekly ritual of bin night provides the setting for the first meeting of two unlikely allies. Ana (Robyn Nevin) is an eighty year old Hungarian widow, wary and flint-hearted. When curiosity gets the better of her, she reaches out to neighbour Catherine (Megan Holloway), a young, insecure actor, who feels just as alone in the world. Over coffees and errands, Ana reveals to Catherine her world-view, where every well-meaning neighbour has a hidden agenda and every offer of help is viewed with suspicion. It's a view shaped by Ana's history as a refugee and as a survivor, scarred by the random violence of war.
 
What begins as a transactional relationship, with Ana's stories of her past as the currency, develops into a deep friendship that allows both women to confront the questions of mortality that hold them both back from moving on with their lives. 
 
Directed by Simon Stone, the drama moves back and forth between Ana's past and present with remarkable fluidity and this is probably the play's greatest strength. The porousness of time allows the supporting ensemble (Kris McQuade, Natasha Herbert, Charlie Garber, Akos Armont and Anthony Harkin) to shift from a set of unassuming contemporary characters to a more heightened epic style as they populate Ana's stories from wartime Hungary. The characters of Ana and Catherine merge too, as Ana deliberately places Catherine in her shoes as she transports the drama into the past.
 
The present day domestic scenes sometimes struggle in the expanse of the Southbank Theatre with the enormous depth and height of the space isolating the actors on the empty grey stage. The set, with its two concentric revolves (design by Dale Ferguson), comes into its own in the storytelling sequences, with threatening shadows looming over the scenes (lighting design by Damien Cooper).
 
As in many of Katz's works, the playwright is centre stage as part of the drama. Here, Holloway's Catherine is a more muted Lally Katz substitute figure, without the forceful, wide-eyed excitement that was integral to Stories I Want to Tell You in Person. In that piece, presented at the Malthouse last year, we heard from Katz herself on stage about her relationship with Ana. In Neighbourhood Watch, with the Katz figure less of a dramatic presence, the focus and the weight of the play is directly on Ana and Nevin's transformative performance.
 
Nevin as Ana suggests the flip-side of the coin to her acclaimed characterisation of Miss Docker in Patrick White's A Cheery Soul. Where Miss Docker was the relentlessly cheerful busybody of the Australian suburbs in the late 1950s (a role Nevin has returned to twice since first playing it in 1979), Ana is relentlessly cheerless and symptomatic of modern suburban living. The Australian suburbs have changed immeasurably since the religious, tightly-knit communities of the 50s to the private and alienating empty streets of the suburbs today. It's a fascinating through line of Australian theatre to see Nevin depict a pair of suburban monsters from White's fictional Sarsaparilla through to Katz's Kew.
 
First staged in Sydney at Belvoir in 2011, Neighbourhood Watch has finally made it to its natural home of Melbourne. It's a big hearted production that sidesteps overt sentimentality and challenges the audience to first look to home to find stories of compassion and human connection. In Ana, Robyn Nevin and Lally Katz have created a truly fearsome character that has aggressively claimed her place in our cultural history.