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The Vocal Local: From Blackpool to Butterworth (via the hills of California)

A new play set in Blackpool has just opened in the West End. The creative director of Blackpool’s newest theatre, Melanie Whitehead, got an expensive train down to see it and can only assume that the high-profile writer behind it assumed no one from the town would bother.

I travelled from Blackpool on Saturday 10 February 2024 to see Jez Butterworth’s new play The Hills of California. I was attending for two reasons. Firstly, as a Blackpool resident, it was exciting to see such a high-profile play set in my chosen hometown premiering in the West End. Secondly, having just launched a new playwriting competition in Blackpool, examining who holds the power on our stage, I was keen to see how this influential playwright would represent our town on stage.

I have no wish to set myself in opposition to Butterworth or any of the creatives involved in this production. As the creative director of the Old Electric I consider myself to be on the ‘same team’ as anyone working in the arts by default. I acknowledge that some may be operating in the Premier League, whilst some of us are coaching the under 11s Sunday team, however, I was under the impression that we all understood the potential power for new thought, dialogue, behaviour and catharsis that live theatre holds. I am hoping that in sharing my experience of this production from a non-London perspective, we could perhaps instigate a conversation about the responsibility of artist to place.

Nor do I wish to undervalue the performances of the solid cast, the mesmerising set design and beautifully slick staging choices. The musical interludes are delightfully nostalgic and, at times razor-sharp dialogue under-pins the complex relationships Butterworth has become known and rightly celebrated for.

By setting the piece in 1976, it is suggested that this will be yet another nostalgia story designed to keep Blackpool firmly in its place – the past.

However, I arrived and left with the same questions resounding in my brain: What does a London-living, Cambridge-educated playwright have to say about Blackpool? More than this, what right does he have to serially present working class-stories, born out of complex regional communities, in a multi-million pound theatre-making machine? This only serves to perpetuate the middle-class echo chambers of assumed understanding of England outside of London. Moreover, why, with such huge resource at his disposal would he take this approach in favour of a more collaborative, well-researched and integrated dynamic that ensures the power he wields could be used to greater effect to engage, empower and support those communities?

From a town that is well used to being punched down on by the media, the indications that this will proffer no new perspectives shine like beacons to those of us used to seeing the signs. The production’s title and artwork are an easy set-up intended to juxtapose an expectation of Hollywood glamour versus the tawdriness of a dilapidated English seaside town – a punchline that lands heavily every time we hear it. By setting the piece in 1976, it is suggested that this will be yet another nostalgia story designed to keep Blackpool firmly in its place – the past.

The show’s programme article entitled The Last Resort intended to provide a potted history of the town, but a strangely organised timeline hopped glibly between 1754 and 1991 in 12 short paragraphs and ended with the words:

“While the town has long sought to stave off decline and its symptoms with ambitious municipal plans, it has often found most hope in its history and in its heritage. The town that looked forward to a bright new future might be best served – and saved – by looking back.”

A clear message from the anonymous author that any of us who may be trying to build a new, future for the town should give up now!

It seems that whilst my perspective may sound like a lonely shot fired in opposition to the 5-star reviews, Butterworth has been called out for this approach before. Northern Irish reviewer Sean O’Hagan wrote about his last play, The Ferryman, which was set in Derry in 1981 and focussed on the events of the IRA hunger strikers. “It doesn’t ring true,” he said in the Guardian. It was “so close to a cultural stereotype as to be offensive”.

Arifa Akbar gave The Hills of California a 3-star review in The Guardian a few days ago, calling it “an uneven drama, baggy in its pacing”, but the PR machine had a positive interview lined up in the same paper just two days later. In it, writer Nadia Khomami said that “setting the play in Blackpool was a tribute to his dad, who hailed from Rochdale. But in general, the writer sees his settings as ‘away games’ – distant unfamiliar places and times that afford him the space to write about matters more close to him.”

The Blackpool-set Hills of California is currently on at the Harold Pinter Theatre

To be clear, this statement is akin to a play being set in London due to some familial connection with Cornwall. It makes no sense. But worse, this dismissal of place does as much to highlight Butterworth’s understanding, or lack thereof, of the amorphous North of England, as it does to express his contempt for residents of his supposed fictional settings.

This peculiar connection to place is lodged, like a small but irritating stone in the flipflop of the play’s experience. At one point, the postcode of the Sea View Guest House is given as FY5. Whilst I appreciate the need for poetic license, even the briefest of research would unearth that this postcode is in Thornton-Cleveleys which, to once again put into a frame of reference that the writer might understand, is like setting a story in Soho but giving it a Southend postcode.

This obvious lack of research continues to reveal itself throughout the play. I can only assume that the company weren’t expecting audiences from Blackpool to attend. At well over £100 for a day return train to London coupled with £55 for a pole-obscured ticket in the nosebleed heights of an inaccessible space, the odds were indeed stacked in Butterworth’s favour.

I travelled down to see this production in hope. This response is written in new hope that it might provoke a conversation – one about how artists could more actively consider the impact their work has on the real people and places they are using as a backdrop for their creative musings.

During Power Plays – the four-month long festival of new writing at the Old Electric – scriptwriters will be invited to explore new perspectives of the town. We will be sharing discussions, workshops and examples that highlight the importance of representation on our stages, exploring in practical ways how the arts can be a supporting factor for our communities who may currently be facing deep issues.

I hope that Jez Butterworth and any other artist who wishes to connect with Blackpool and the creative ambitions for the future of this brilliant, beautiful, yet complex town, will take this as an open invitation to come and engage in a genuine, nuanced, messy dialogue with us here.

There’s a well-worn welcome mat, just follow the 20-million annual visitors up the M55 to our doors.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Melanie Whitehead is the Creative Director of The Old Electric, Blackpool's newest theatre. She previously worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

  • Show Comments (2)

  • Peter Millard

    Hi Melanie,
    Thanks for this: interestung indeed!
    I recently returned to my native Blackpool after living and working down south (including London) for over 35 years …. and was more than pleasantly surprised – I do think we have a better quality of life up here now than many places in the south (eg. I taught at Portsmouth Uni for the last 25 years and was glad to get out of that claustrophic and polluted city) and agree that our town often gets a ridiculously bad press!
    Best wishes,
    Peter

  • Sarah CL

    Having had a very simular conversation yesterday and planning future events with an intention to continue to highlight the positive aspects of Blackpool, I appreciate this review! 🙏
    The acknowledgement that whilst the creatives involved are indeed talented the tone of voice towards Blackpool is a tired narrative was a refreshing read.
    Thankyou for encouraging this conversation. ❤️

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