Once again, the State Theatre Company of South Australia has struck solid gold with their wonderful production of Neighbourhood Watch, written by Lally Katz, the American born playwright who has lived in Australia since childhood. At its 2011 premiere, in Sydney, this play was nominated for a Helpmann Award for Best Play, with the lead role written especially for Robyn Nevin.
The play is semi-autobiographical. Katz had a neighbour named Anna, with whom she became friends although, since the play was seen by Anna, she refuses to speak to the playwright. Although there was no romantic attachment, Katz also had a housemate at the time. Director, Julian Meyrick, acted a dramaturge for Katz, so is an ideal choice to direct this production having had such intimate involvement with the writing and consequently has a deep understanding.
Ana is an octogenarian Hungarian-Australian, who has had more than her share of hard times in her life. Catherine is a neighbour of hers, a young woman who aspires to be an actress, without any success to date. Catherine's housemate, Ken, spends his time playing Internet games, obsessed with World of Warcraft, who is supposedly writing a film script. Catherine cannot let go of a past relationship with Martin, clinging to the hope of his return at the expense of moving on and starting again. Ana, meanwhile, tries to avoid her Serbian neighbour, Milova, who tries persistently to befriend her. These are the disparate residents of Mary Street.
The two central characters, Ana and Catherine, are as alike as chalk and cheese and yet, somehow, they develop a close relationship when Ana takes the young woman under her wing and tries to teach her all that she has learned in her eighty years. Miriam Margolyes is as good as it gets as the every wary and suspicious Ana. Her performance is nothing short of stupendous. As she appears on stage we all recognise Margolyes, a millisecond later and she is gone, left behind in the dressing room, and there for the next couple of hours, is Ana, in a totally complete and convincing performance.
This is a master class in acting that every acting student in Adelaide should be racing to attend. For that matter, any actor could learn a lot from this performance. What great fortune that Margolyes has recently become an Australian citizen, hopefully guaranteeing that we see a lot more of her.
Recent NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts) graduate, Eleanor Stankiewicz, is Ana, who finds herself being mentored in how to live her life by Ana but, in the end, Ana finds that she still has something to learn from Catherine. Stankiewicz gives a very believable performance in the role of the rather vague, naive young woman. Catherine wants to be an actress, but does not appear to get any work, suggesting that she has more wishful thinking than talent, and Stankiewicz adds that to Catherine's other delusions in a subtle interpretation of the role.
Margolyes and Stankiewicz establish a close rapport that supports the relationship of their characters. The give and take and to and fro of focus and strength is filled with as much authenticity as their individual characterisations.
The remainder of the cast each assumes a number of roles, one more prominent than their others. Catherine's housemate, Ken, who has a secret crush on her, is played by James Smith, who presents us with a likable loser, but he also conveys an underlying sadness as life passes Ken by. The Serbian neighbour, Milova, is played by Eugenia Fragos, who gives her character a warmth that supports her character's eternal cheerfulness and continual attempts to befriend Ana. Another neighbour, Christina, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer, is played with a good degree of gentleness by Carmel Johnson The elusive ex-boyfriend, Martin, is played by Nic English, who gives ambiguity to his relationship with Catherine for reasons that become clear later. Supernumeraries are commonly used in operas, but are rare in theatre, so Ben Roberts fulfils an unusual position in this play.
In these, and their numerous other roles, the ensemble strongly supports the narrative and the two main characters, changing costumes and roles time and again throughout the production.
Louise McCarthy's set consists of 'buildings' on either side of the stage, Catherine and Ken living in the one to the audiences left, and Ana in that on the right, with a picket fence and gate that holds back her loudly barking German Shepherd. These are in sections, Catherine's rotating to reveal different aspects, and Ana's opening to reveal the interior. As always, Geoff Cobham has designed a complex lighting plot that has particularly great dramatic effect in a fantasy section, and Quentin Grant has composed a very effective musical score the suits the many moods of the play.
Unfortunately, sitting on the very far right extremity of the audience right against the stage, it was impossible to see the centrepiece of the set, so I have no idea what use was made of that, and the final advice given to Catherine by Ana was on the far side of the stage, with Margolyes facing her, looking away into the wings, making it extremely hard to hear. The seats at the far sides of any theatre are notorious.
This is an exceptional evening of theatre and should be on your calendar. Bookings will no doubt be heavy for this one, so don't delay in getting your tickets.