Neighbourhood Watch: The Odd Couple

Getting in touch with playwright Lally Katz isn’t easy. 

Getting in touch with playwright Lally Katz isn’t easy. Calling from The Adelaide Review office, my calls are initially refused with no explanation. A few frantic texts later and Katz picks up.

“I’m so sorry! I’m in Melbourne and I didn’t recognise that number. I could have sworn you were a telemarketer!” Katz explains that she has been receiving call after call from telemarketers in recent weeks, and didn’t want to speak with another one. Already, the conversation feels theatrical. Katz is in Melbourne with her visiting parents to watch a production of her play, Neighbourhood Watch, which will be performed by the State Theatre Company here in Adelaide in May. If your show is being performed in two locations by two production companies, it’s safe to safe it’s a popular piece, and Katz’ bubbly demeanour reflects that success. Neighbourhood Watch is about two neighbours and how their lives come together. They are Ana, an 80-year-old Hungarian-Australian widow, and Charlotte, a scatterbrained aspiring actor. Following the travails of their lives, those that Ana has weathered and that Catherine is undertaking, this is an odd-couple story. They form a bond over the perpetual irritation that the world inflicts upon them in the shape of acquaintances, boyfriends and housemates. “It’s a story that I hope reaches younger and older generations,” Katz says, noting that the characters’ outlooks are generations apart, but are bridged over everyday events and similar experience. Catherine is based on Katz’ own life while Ana is based on Katz’ old neighbour of the same name. Yet the play is not autobiographical, at least for Catherine. “Catherine’s an actress, I’m a writer. One character, Catherine’s housemate, is based on my old housemate, but in the play they have this romantic connection, which was never there in real life. After my friends saw the show they said, ‘I didn’t know Ben was in love with you!’ He wasn’t but that was something we added to heighten the drama of the show.” Ana’s character is closer to reality and the decision to keep her name speaks to this. Asking Katz why she was so interested in Ana to begin with she says, “What attracted me to Ana was that she is a combination of drama and comedy. The first time I met her she was telling me about her father being blown to bits and also complaining about neighbours putting dirty nappies in her bin. There’s comedy and drama tied into her epic story, you know?” Ana saw Neighbourhood Watch during it opening season in Sydney where it was nominated for the 2011 Helpmann Award for Best Theatre. How did such a vigorous and forthright person feel about being portrayed so literally on stage? “She thought about suing me for a week,” Katz says, “but then she decided she loved it.” Asked whether she’s still in contact with Ana, Katz says yes, but that one cost of making this show has been a slight loss of trust on Ana’s part. Evidently, she is somewhat sceptical of Katz’s tendency as a writer to transform life into art. “She’s not speaking to me now. Not for a good reason, mind you. I think there are plenty of reasons for her not to speak to me, but the one she’s using at the moment isn’t that good.” Esteemed Australian actor Robin Nevin is playing Ana in Melbourne, but Adelaide will have the iconic Miriam Margolyes filling the key role. “She’s a great actor. She’s very funny and she’ll be a fantastic Ana,” Katz says. Katz is comfortable that the show is being presented differently across the country. She explains that the script isn’t completely static either. Julian Meryck, the Helpmann Award winning director helming the State Theatre Company’s production, worked with Katz on Neighbourhood Watch in the past as a dramaturge, and saw potential for extra catharsis at the end of the show. “He’s seen things being added and deleted from the script before, and asked me to add a little scene at the end, which was a great idea.” Neighbourhood Watch is on Victoria and New South Wales’ high school syllabi at the moment as well. While the show is dynamic and the script has changed slightly over time, Katz worries that drama students could be thrown off by it. “Things like character names have even changed since it was put on that list, so I hope they don’t get too confused by it!” Katz laughs. What’s more, Neighbourhood Watch looks to have a future in film. Last year in July, Screen Australia announced it was supporting Katz and producer Marian Macgowan to form a screenplay adaptation of the show, with Gillian Armstrong attached to direct. Katz is not counting her chickens on this significant milestone though, noting the vagaries of the film studio system. It’s early days,” she says. “With film you never know! It could be another 20 years.” Thankfully, Adelaide audiences will not have to wait that long to see Neighbourhood Watch in their backyard.   Neighbourhood Watch Dunstan Playhouse Friday, May 2 to Saturday, May 24 statetheatrecompany.com.au

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