The Hills of California

This new play from Jez Butterworth is an intense look at what being a family really means. This female centred play is full of nostalgia, warmth, depth and ultimately sadness.

As I enter the Harold Pinter Theatre I am taken aback by the set in front of me, a tall stage which has been opened up and had a revolve installed. A labyrinth of staircases weave their way into the rafters of the building, the design from Rob Howell is grand and yet feels cosy all in one. The setting for this piece is a rundown guesthouse on the outskirts of Blackpool in 1976 during a heatwave, where we meet Jill Webb who is awaiting the arrival of her sisters Gloria and Ruby who are returning to the family home as their aging mother is coming to the end of her life in a room upstairs.  They are eagerly awaiting their oldest sister Joan, who is the only one of them to have ever made anything of themselves after she moved to America and became a singer. We are taken on a three act journey moving between 1976 and 1958, as the members of the family deal with their grief and reminisce on their childhoods, we learn of their pushy mother whose only goal was to make her daughters as successful as the Andrews sisters, no matter the cost.

The first act is perfectly paced and sets the scene impeccably well. We are welcomed into the warm family, hearing of their memories of a wonderful childhood spent rehearsing and performing their singing act at various local events, their mother Veronica, remains supportive and though sometimes she does not make the correct choice, she seems to have the girls best interests at heart. Laura Donnelly is perfectly cast as Veronica, a woman with depth and who does so well at masking the pain and struggles she is dealing with. We meet younger versions of all the sisters, in particular Lara McDonnell as Young Joan shines here, she is given the more important role and we see that things were not as they seemed with her. Act one ends on a shock moment and sets the tone for the rest of the evening.

Acts 2 and 3 are significantly darker and this is where the incredible acting of the evening is presented. With large emotions and intense fiery arguments the family starts to fall apart slightly. Ophelia Lovibond comes into her own as Ruby in the later acts, using her full versatility to bring the character to life.

Director Sam Mendes has worked wonderfully with this piece, understanding the subject matter and the intensity of the darker storylines means that it feels authentic and draws you in for the entire three hours. As with every Jez Butterworth piece you expect there to be intensity and depth. With previous works such as ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘The Ferryman’ this play has some high hopes to live up to and I think it definitely meets those expectations.

This show was reviewed on the 8th February 2024 at the Harold Pinter Theatre where The Hills of California runs until the 15th June 2024.  Tickets available here: The Hills of California | Harold Pinter Theatre | London's West End (hillsofcaliforniaplay.com)

Review written by Rosie Browne

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Photo credit: Mark Douet

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