Neighbourhood Watch | BelvoirLeft – Robyn Nevin and Heather Mitchell. Cover – Megan Holloway and Robyn Nevin. Photos – Brett Boardman

When Lally Katz told Robyn Nevin that she wanted to write a play for her Nevin asked that her character be “tough and funny”. Katz’s play is very funny and tremendously enjoyable. And Nevin’s character, Ana, is as tough as they come. Katz found her inspiration in a Hungarian neighbour with whom she developed a friendship and, as a result, Neighbourhood Watch is written with a good deal of love for this irascible old woman whose protective coating has, by necessity, become hard as nails.

Neighbourhood Watch is both entertaining and substantial. It is a funny and touching play about a friendship between a young woman, Catherine, and her old Hungarian neighbour. For a comedy, it is full of depth and rich with ideas. It examines the need for friendship, the value of both innocence and experience as well as the pitfalls of trusting too much and not enough. It also reflects on the European experience of World War 2, and the dislocating effect it has had upon our migrant population.

When I saw David Williamson in the opening night audience of this new play, I wondered if he were tempted to hop on stage along with the writer and director at the end to hand over his comedy-writing baton to Lally Katz, an immensely assured and prolific writer from the new generation. Katz’s play is every bit as good as Williamson’s work, yet they are very different. While Williamson’s humour is often based on social observation and wit, Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch is character-based and all about love.

Megan Holloway’s Catherine is a sunny, wide-eyed aspiring actress, in love with the wrong man. She finds Ana to be a loyal friend and a fierce protector. Ana takes it upon herself to teach Catherine to exercise more caution, to protect herself and, most importantly, how to cope. Catherine, in turn, teaches Ana to drop her defences and to be less suspicious.

Much of the humour comes from Ana’s formidable Hungarian character and her idiosyncratic broken English, which Nevin delivers perfectly. Robyn Nevin is at her best in character roles. She is marvellous as this complicated, guarded character. This is particularly hilarious when Ana is enacting a story from her Hungarian past and meets Arthur who speaks in exactly the same broken English. Ana says to Catherine, “Now for you, ve is speaking the English. So you can understand. But then it vas Hungarian ve vas speaking. He speak the English now even though he do not know it.”

The play ranges in style and scope and director Simon Stone skillfully allows the action to shift between the broad comic scenes and darker elements, while astutely steering the action away from unnecessary sentimentality. Stone’s simple staging is elegant and effective. He uses a bare stage with a few props and an imaginatively used revolve. At one point, for instance, the revolve transports the two central characters literally back in time as Ana tells her stories to Catherine.

The play becomes more serious as it goes along yet Stone manages to keep the audience equally enthralled in the play’s concerns. In the second act the dramatic arc shifts from the sparkling comedy of act 1 to the emotional heart of the play. We come to learn that Ana’s hard veneer is a product of her early, wartime experiences and, indeed, why Catherine has been losing weight. The laughs are still there, although fewer and mixed with a healthy dose of pathos. It is a difficult balance to achieve and both writer and director can take full credit for carrying it off.

The supporting characters are all strong: Charlie Garber as Ken, Catherine’s housemate, Ian Meadows as her old boyfriend, Martin and Heather Mitchell poignant and dignified as neighbour Christina, suffering from chemotherapy. Most of all, Kris McQuade, now almost herself a grande dame of the Australian stage, is tremendous as Milova, the old Serbian woman, whose genuine offer of friendship to Ana and constant rejection by her is the show’s funniest running gag.

I think you will love this heart-warming play. I can easily see this production touring for a long, long time after the Sydney season but see it now while it still has Robyn Nevin in the cast.

Belvoir presents
Neighbourhood Watch
by Lally Katz

Director Simon Stone

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre | 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 23 July – 28 August, 2011
Times: Tuesday 6.30pm | Wednesday to Friday 8pm | Saturday 2pm & 8pm | Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Full $59 | Seniors (excluding Fri/Sat evenings) $49 | Concession $39
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 |

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