Any one who saw Lally Katz’s super-gorgeous Stories I Want to Tell You in Person heard about her writing of Neighbourhood Watch, and will be thrilled that the MTC have brought us that Belvoir production. Like most of Lally’s work, it’s personal, dreamy and so dark that that you’re never sure if you’re wiping away tears of heartaching recognition or life-affirming love.
Neighbourhood Watch is about neighbours, friends and death and all the things we do to avoid or confront both.
It’s set in the year of Kevin 07: a far-too-quickly-lost time of hope. Howard lost his seat and his government, a woman was Deputy PM, a rock star was Minister for the Environment, Kyoto was signed, our Indigenous people were finally apologised to, and we all got $1000 to buy some treats to keep the economy going. Today, such hope feels like fiction.
It was also the year that Lally moved to Far Kew and met Anna, her 80+ Hungarian neighbour who became her best friend, and the year that Robyn Nevin asked Lally to write her a “tough and funny” character. When the Nevin asks, you write – and result is the story of grieving Catherine (Megan Holloway) meeting her neighbour Ana (Nevin), whose lifetime of grief is as guarded as her big-dog protected front gate.
The combination of Robyn and Ana is as good as it gets. Katz captures the unique second-language rhythm and Nevin perfects it in a performance that lets you love Ana in an instant. Ana’s Englishisms and missing social niceties are hilarious, but Nevin assures that we are always on her side, even when she is making painful choices, and that Ana is never made fun of. It’s such a remarkable performance that it might be impossible to see the play and not consider real-life Anna a friend.
Simon Stone’s confident direction is an enhancing and comfortable fit with the writing; he’s able to bring Katz’s work to a commercial stage without losing her delightfully awkward tone or any of the love that she pours into her characters, while letting them find their place in the world beyond the text.
With Dale Ferguson’s almost bare stage design, made intimate with Damien Cooper’s lighting, there’s enough space to feel the reach of the drama, but Kew is missing. It’s easy for a Melbourne audience to understand the subtleties of the suburb – so much of Katz’s work starts with and evokes a sense of place that leaves residents homesick – but its greyness doesn’t share the green of the trees, the manicured lawns, Leo’s, the High Street tram or getting stuck on Princess Street trying to cut across to the Eastern Freeway. Having said that, I could see it all, so perhaps the wheelie bins were more than enough.
Lally Katz’s writing grabbed me from the first time I saw a short play about the Apocalypse Bear in Kew. There have been ups and downs, but at her best her writing is felt in our hearts before our brains have time to think it all through. Neighbourhood Watch is Katz at her absolute best
But the real world isn’t at its best. Lally wrote a piece for The Age on 1 March: Anna has cut her off and isn’t speaking to her. In Stories, Lally talked about real-life Anna seeing the play in Sydney and the thought of it being in Melbourne without her being there is unthinkable – and, more importantly, it’s too sad to think that she might not know how much this play has made us love her.