A few words from Alan Ayckbourn

Monday, April 2nd, 2012 by Tricycle

Alan Ayckbourn, writer and director of Neighbourhood Watch, is one of the UK’s most treasured playwrights. Here, he shares his thoughts on the themes of the play, and what caused him to write it.


Alan AyckbournYour new play is called Neighbourhood Watch, what is it about?

I think it’s all in the title.  It’s a cautionary play.  It addresses modern hang-ups such as law and order, health and safety. Are we safe in our beds when there are lawless youths roaming the streets whilst the police seem powerless? It’s tapping into that sort of fear.

Is it as dark as it sounds?

It’s in my dark farce mode.  I’ve always been interested in how, out of tiny things, wars are often fought. Whenever history is examined, you always say: Is that really what started it? Helen of Troy was responsible for an awful lot!  Neighbourhood Watch begins with a genuine misunderstanding where no-one is prepared to stand down and the reason becomes all but forgotten, but nonetheless causes a war.

And you’re tackling this from the perspective as something as apparently innocuous as a neighbourhood watch scheme?

It’s about committees which have a way of being taken over by lunatics and extremists. Sane people often haven’t the patience or staying power to serve on committees. So the people in charge of them are often those with nothing better to do but manipulate other people’s lives. Then there are sub-committees, which are answerable to nobody and do all the work from finance to, in this case, retribution! Very few normal people volunteer for those, as that’s another evening out of their lives, so you find people volunteering for sub-committees who shouldn’t be in charge of a box of matches let alone the future of an estate. (For more information, please see my earlier play Ten Times Table!)

What quickly emerges from this scheme is a particularly extreme British version of a gated community, do you think that’s a real possibility?

There is a sense of impotence these days, an instinct to build little fences around ourselves. Because my English people are inherently polite people, they very rarely contradict each other and are happy to go along with things until, usually, it’s far too late. I don’t think we’ll ever become an extreme fascist state in this country over night, but we might over the years just drift into it and people will then ask how on earth did we get here? The English are not for turning! But gently nudging? The English are for nudging.

One of the ideas of the play is our perception of real versus imagined threats, do you think that is particularly pertinent to society today?

I think so, because we are increasingly distancing ourselves from reality. We get our information from newspapers or TV or the internet; we are aware of things that are happening but since we don’t witness them first hand relying instead on news media, often amplified, this compounds the sense that society is breaking down.  I think there’s too much information which we can’t process fast enough – no wonder we’re in danger of getting badly confused I’ve been aware that once I’m out of the stream – and when one is a writer, you do tend to keep dipping out and in – the world seems completely demented.  Then when you get back to reality, you realise most of your fears were ludicrously exaggerated.  Yes, it is risky to walk down certain streets even in Scarborough alone at night but society is not breaking down.
How would you compare Neighbourhood Watch to your last play, Life of Riley?

I describe some of my plays as watercolours and some as oils. I think Life of Riley was probably more a watercolour and this is more towards oil – maybe a pastel! It’s slightly bolder and has some extremely dark shadows in it, but also some light moments.
Life of Riley was rather oblique. A lot of people who saw it didn’t quite perceive what was happening and were looking for twists which weren’t there. This one is much more in your face!


Neighbourhood Watch is at the Tricycle from 10 April – 5 May.
Click here for more information and to book tickets.