Neighbourhood Watch

Alan Ayckbourn’s brand of Little Britain social comedy has wrapped itself around many subjects over the years. Here, directing as well as writing, he tackles a Big Society-ish world with disarming wit.

When a garden gnome is lobbed through a window, the Daily Mail-inflamed residents of Bluebell Hill Development take the law into their own hands, fortifying themselves against the nearby council estate, introducing ID cards and erecting stocks on the ornamental roundabout.

For a play about tabloid hysteria and vigilantism, this feels surprisingly old-fashioned at times. Ayckbourn falls back on familiar types for the likes of ex-security guard Rod (a hilariously gruff Terence Booth), while another character’s affair with Matthew Cottle’s mad-eyed chairman Martin makes little sense other than that she is ‘the slutty one’.

A meandering look at these stock characters sees the first act occasionally drift out of focus. But the picture sharpens and the pace picks up as the residents’ plans start to unravel, dark secrets spill out and pigeon coops burn.

With his seventy-fifth play, Ayckbourn shows that his comic touch and ear for the socially absurd yet painfully plausible haven’t deserted him. And if his deceptively light sketch of middle-class paranoia attracts audiences who might have stayed away from ‘The Riots’ – the Tricycle’s last look at a broken Britain – so much the better.

First published by Time Out