The Netherley Hillbillies at the Royal Court in Liverpool – review

Barbara Phillips’ comedy, inspired by The Beverly Hillbillies sitcom, runs until 22 June

Vicky Entwistle in a scene from The Netherley Hillbillies at Liverpool's Royal Court
Vicky Entwistle in The Netherley Hillbillies, © Stephanie Claire Photography

Faceless, insipid, devoid of character: is this the modern house where this new play is set, or the play itself? Sadly, both.

Moving into this expensive house are the Kennedys. After winning the lottery, they leave behind their Liverpool council house for Formby. However, they don’t leave behind their Scouse accents or “tacky” tastes, which soon grate with the existing residents, provoked by a dramatic blunder upon arrival. All the while, they try to conceal their lottery win so they can keep a low profile and earn their place among the locals.

It’s a simple set-up that could have a hard edge at an economic moment when people might view such windfalls with increased suspicion and envy. It’s also ripe for portraying more perennial themes of class, social mobility, and new and old money. Yet Barbara Phillips’ play lacks any edge at all. Dad Jed frets about the curse of the lottery, when they’re beset by the curse of a weak script.

There’s such a comedy deficit that you’re more likely to win the lottery than break into laughter. Neither family’s comments are disdainful enough of the other. It tosses in a handful of ill-fitting, abbreviated musical numbers and very basic dance sequences comprising shuffles side to side, modest leg kicks and a twirl. They seem desperate, arbitrary inclusions that only amplify the wider lack of finesse.

Although the airhead daughter, Elly-May, and well-meaning but gullible mother, Lisa, feel flimsy stereotypes, the cast are good value. Best of all is Vicky Entwistle’s snooty matriarch, Marigold, who screeches “Scousers” with her lips flared like a hissing cat. Her snobby microaggressions include correcting Elly-May’s dropped consonants which she almost sicks up: “G-G-G-G”. Her voice is so sharp she could practically scarify her garden lawn; if only she was given more cutting remarks.

Lynn Francis plays an ostensibly foul-mouthed nan who’s not given any hair-raising retorts. Her performance is indebted to the oversized protruding dentures that make her a spit-flecking viper.

Phillips’ profanity-peppered script tries to convince that it’s less asinine and well-behaved than it is. Tepid squabbling doesn’t make the families adversarial. Nor does Phillips crank up the hostility into anarchic eruptions or acts of urban warfare. A revolving stage oscillates between one garden and the other, never with anything entertaining awaiting on the other side of the fence.

The Royal Court’s relatively high, capacious stage also deprives Alfie Heywood’s set of a sense of suffocating claustrophobia in bitter enemies shackled up against each other. And with Jed constantly wavering over whether he even wants to be here anyway, there’s never anything at stake – of defending their dream house.

There’s always a question of who we’re rooting for. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a man whose source of boredom and discontent is being rich and living in a posh neighbourhood. We’re even told, unironically, that a “new house, new lifestyle” means the daughter has “been through a lot”. The supposedly decent family always feels shallow, while Phillips never explores the struggle of their former life and being liberated from these money worries.

The salutary lessons it offers are hackneyed: money isn’t everything; wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; “Be careful what you wish for”. Better advice here would be: run for the hills.