Neighbourhood Watch

Image by Jeff Busby

Image by Jeff Busby

Review by Penny Mulvey
MTC Sumner Theatre until 26 April

Robyn Nevin has been a giant in Australian theatre for as long as I can remember. It is always a thrill to watch a great artist at work, and so it is in the latest Melbourne Theatre Company production of Lally Katz’s play, Neighbourhood Watch.

The local playwright wrote this play especially for Robyn Nevin after a casual conversation in a theatre foyer in 2007, when the possibility of such an outcome was discussed.

Ms Katz, in relaying the story said: “I asked her, ‘what should the character be like?’ Robyn responded, ‘tough and funny’. So that was it. My whole life became about finding a tough and funny character to write for Robyn.”

Ana is a Hungarian immigrant – strong, intimidating and lonely. Nevin plays her with great integrity and truthfulness because she is, in fact, a real person; Katz’s neighbour when she was living in the Melbourne suburb of Kew. For two years, Ms Katz hung out with her neighbour and, as in the play, found herself washing Anna’s dog, learning her recipes, being weighed and going on errands together.

Neighbourhood Watch is a captivating tale of unexpected friendship, of loneliness in a society no longer connected, of the quiet burdens of ill health, grief, loss and history we all carry and of forgiveness and letting go.

It is a universal tale of the modern suburban neighbourhood – isolating but with potential for great richness captured simply and powerfully by an empty revolving stage, with few props and stark lighting.

The unexpected friendship is between Ana and Catherine (Megan Holloway) – affectionately called Kitty Kitty by Ana.

Catherine is an uncertain young woman who shares a house with a patient male friend. The play moves between our recent history (the election of Kevin Rudd to Prime Minister in 2007) and Ana’s youth in Hungary. It opens Catherine’s eyes to a place and time of which she knew nothing … a time of war, hunger, fear and strength in adversity.

The friendship is mutual. Catherine learns to trust again and is taught lessons of love and courtship by the much older and wiser Ana, but Ana too learns from Catherine. She learns of the need to forgive, to let go of ingrained racial suspicion and to accept an offered friendship, even if just a little at a time.

Director Simon Stone describes Lally Katz’s writing as eclectic, a time-travelling mix of fantasy, hyperrealism, sitcom and epic theatre.

“The play bends time and explodes space,” he said. “The past is resurrected and the present is spun around itself.”

Neighbourhood Watch is a beautiful piece of theatre, poignant and powerful. It reminds us that the gift of friendship can come when we least expect it and are most in need of it.

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