With a script like Australian playwright Lally Katz’s black comedy Neighbourhood Watch to work with, she is utterly captivating.
The wonderful role of cantankerous 80-year-old Hungarian-Australian widow Ana seems tailor-made for Margolyes (Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films and star of the one-woman stage show Dickens’ Women), although it was actually written for Robyn Nevin, who starred in the original Belvoir Street Theatre production.
This new incarnation of the contemporary play is being presented by the State Theatre Company of South Australia under the direction of Julian Meyrick - and it is a delight.
At the heart of the story is the unlikely friendship between Ana and neighbour Catherine (Eleanor Stankiewicz), a young aspiring actress who lives with her flatmate Ken (James Smith). Ana’s tough life as a refugee has made her suspicious of most people, but she’s intrigued by the girl she dubs “Caty Caty”.
As the two become closer, their personal histories emerge, with clever set adjustments and lighting fluidly transitioning the story from contemporary Australia to war-torn Budapest; at times, past and present lives seem to co-exist – as, indeed, they do in most of our own minds.
Around this pivotal pair swirls a cast of other interesting characters, including middle-aged neighbour Christina (Carmel Johnson), who is undergoing treatment for cancer; Ana’s Serbian would-be friend Milova (Eugenia Fragos); and Catherine’s absent boyfriend Martin (Nic English).
Katz’s script is brilliant: laden with humour and pathos, it highlights the extraordinary lives that lurk behind ordinary suburban picket fences; the vulnerabilities many people go to great lengths to hide.
Margolyes completely embodies her emotionally complex character – a stoic survivor whose tough, sometimes callous façade and acerbic wit conceals her loneliness – and nails the strong Hungarian accent and broken English which accentuates the play’s humour. Other cast members also give strong performances, with Stankiewicz particularly impressive as the wounded, ethereal Catherine, and Smith’s a natural as computer-game-obsessed aspiring filmmaker Ken.
On opening night, Neighbourhood Watch produced both loud laughter and quiet tears as the audience became immersed in the lives of the residents of Mary Street. It is impossible not to be affected by the story – as director Meyrick wrote recently, echoing the comments of Catherine at the end, it reminds us “we are in the life”.
Go to see this play – and book as close to the front of the stage as possible, so you can fully appreciate the myriad marvellous expressions of Myriam Margolyes.