Neighbourhood Watch. By Lally Katz Directed by Kate Blackhurst. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3, Ellery Crescent, Acton. August 3 (preview)-19. canberrarep.org.au or 62571950.
Kate Blackhurst, who is directing Canberra Rep's next production, says "Working with a live playwright is quite wonderful."
She wanted to incorporate material from earlier versions of former Canberran Lally Katz's play Neighbourhood Watch that wasn't in the edition of the script she had been sent. Blackhurst was able to gain the playwright's consent for the changes she wanted from earlier versions and to discuss the play with its author.
The original production was set in Sydney but the action can be moved to any Australian city so Blackhurst has relocated it to Canberra, although no particular suburb is mentioned. The time is more specific, however, with references to "Kevin 07" and the election of US president Barack Obama setting it in a particular period.
Catherine (played by Alex McPherson) is an aspiring but unemployed actress in her late 20s with mental health issues who is hung up on her ex-boyfriend Martin (Damon Baudin). She lives with her flatmate Ken (Craig Battams), an aspiring film writer who spends a lot of his time on his laptop playing video games or watching The West Wing.
"She develops an unusual friendship with Ana, played by Liz de Totth, an 82-year-old Hungarian refugee scarred by memories of living in camps across Europe and memories of Hungary during the war," Blackhurst says.
The title has a double meaning: in addition to the sense of community that's slowly being fostered among the characters, there's also a Neighbourhood Watch meeting being convened by one of them, Laura (Loren Kalis). Blackhurst says that attending it is part of the process that helps bring Catherine out of herself and breaks down her sense of isolation.
In real life, de Totth and McPherson are mother and daughter and neither had been on stage for a while before auditioning for this show.
De Totth says, "It's a beautiful play - funny, poignant, tearjerking and heartwarming."
When she first read it, she says, she didn't like the character of Ana: "She seemed totally harsh, unfunny, not very nice, curt. She didn't have any friends."
But as she thought about the play and the character and worked on it, she could understand more about the old woman and why she might be in the situation she was, finding it hard to relate to people and trust them.
"It's a combination of all her past experiences," she says. The people whom she does try to befriend, like Belinda (Nikki Lynn-Hunter) are put off, while the ones who try to befriend her, she pushes away, notably Yovanka (Judi Crane),another old woman who happens to be Serbian.
"The Serbian-Hungarian enmity goes back to pre-war times," de Totth says.
As for Catherine, de Totth says she doesn't quite know why Ana is drawn to the younger woman. She thinks perhaps Ana senses Ana's disconnection from the world and emotional problems and somehow relates to this and wants to help. She tells Catherine stories from her past, which are enacted as flashbacks.
"The whole play is Catherine's journey back to wellness and how Ana contributes to that."