Author Lally Katz’s personal experiences with an eccentric neighbour have provided the basis for a star vehicle written specifically for the immense talents of Robyn Nevin.
Eighty year-old widow Ana, is a former Hungarian refugee who judges people quickly and still carries mistrust of certain ethnicities, even in the face of kindness. She’s highly aware of the goings on in her street and when she notices the emotionally lost Catherine while putting out her bin, she decides to impress herself upon the girl. Through a series of stories from her own youth and the life lessons they hold, she shapes the adulthood of Catherine and helps her move forward with her life.
This is a simple tale driven by the charming quirks of Ana’s aggressive way of showing Catherine (or Kitty Kitty as she calls her) that she cares. The relationship developed between the two women provides means of physical support for the elderly Ana (Nevin) and emotional support for the meandering actress Catherine (Megan Holloway).
As MTC audiences have come to expect, Nevin once again demonstrates her virtuosity on the stage. Through a beautifully nuanced performance, Nevin provides Ana with a snappy tongue and a guarded nature that belies her instinctual mothering. Every inch of Nevin’s body behaves as Ana, her carriage and gait taking all the time expected of an octogenarian. Holloway matches up admirably to this first-class standard with a balanced and understated performance, her Catherine is a recognisable portrait of a sweet girl with dreams but a lack of direction and an inability to mobilise both her career and her love life.
Providing colour to the pair’s life is a small ensemble that doubles between a number of roles. Key characters include: Ken, Catherine’s diabetic, World of Warcraft loving flat mate and potential love interest, played with charm and humour by Charlie Garber; the ever patient Milinka, a Serbian refugee who shows far more care for Ana than she sees in return and played with wonderful physicality by Kris McQuade; Martin, Catherine’s former boyfriend as portrayed with delicate charisma by Akos Armont; and jittery neighbour Belinda, a cancer sufferer who struggles under the weight of Ana’s reliance upon her. Natasha Herbert plays Belinda with well-judged frailty and weariness; however, her development of the part of Ana’s doctor is below expectation.
Anthony Harkin has the busy role of on-stage pianist, and with the assistance of a looping machine, continues accompaniment as he joins the action as the kindly local chemist, police officer, postie and grocery deliveryman. Harkin is extremely likable in all of these roles and earns extra points for his multi-tasking skills.
Despite everything it has going for it Neighbourhood Watch fails to reach the audience in a way that feels meaningful. The cavernous Sumner Theatre swallows up this intimate production and leaves the audience disconnected from the emotional highs that it delivers. The complete lack of set – Dale Ferguson’s design simply carpets the walls and floor and uses a multi-directional revolve to allow movement and small pieces of furniture to provide setting. So often, it feels that more than Damien Cooper’s changes in lighting state are required to tell the story on the grand scale that the Sumner creates.
This is an intimately personal tale that would play wonderfully in the Arts Centre Fairfax Studio or even the MTC’s own Lawler Studio, but one can only assume that the company has determined that Nevin’s star power will fill the Sumner and therefore it is the most appropriate venue. Director Simon Stone would have done his production a favour either to insist that a smaller venue was chosen or to revise his staging to allow this sweetly simple tale to elevate to something more, so it plays to the space – although whether the script would bear up to that treatment is a question.
As it stands, Stone’s direction of the production is pleasing and works well to the script’s uncomplicated style, it’s just a pity that the audience isn’t allowed to experience the beauty of the performances in a more intimate manner.
Ultimately, the performances are engaging, especially Nevin’s, and the story comes to a satisfying solution, but the staging leaves this production feeling a lack of emotional impact.