'The Hills of California' review — Jez Butterworth has created a new masterpiece
Read our five-star review of The Hills of California, now in performances at the Harold Pinter Theatre to 15 June.
Big celebrity names in a cast often provide the pulling power for a new West End opening, but for playwright Jez Butterworth, it is his name – and his name alone – that is needed to fill seats. The acclaimed writer struck gold with Jerusalem 15 years ago, which saw Mark Rylance give a career-defining performance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron, and Butterworth has done it again with his new play The Hills of California.
Set during the heatwave of 1976 in Blackpool, the play sees the Webb sisters – Jill, Ruby, Gloria, and Joan – gather in the parlour of Sea View, a tired guest house run and owned by their mother Veronica, who lies dying from stomach cancer upstairs. Swinging between the present and the sisters’s childhood in the 1950s, the play shows how dreams can be made and broken in a matter of minutes.
All four sisters are carefully delineated by Butterworth and expertly performed by an accomplished cast. Helena Wilson brings quiet desperation to the role of loyal, highly strung Jill, who has given up her own life to care for her mother; Ophelia Lovibond as good natured, excitable Ruby steals laughs with zingy one-liners; anger and stress courses through Leanne Best’s no-nonsense Gloria; and, finally, there's Laura Donnelly as distant, damaged Joan, the only one who escapes to the hills of California. Donnelly is also excellent as Veronica in the 1950s scenes, portraying a pushy, ambitious mother, who wants her daughters to become the next Andrews Sisters and tap dance their way to the London Palladium.
The play marks a reunion between Butterworth and director Sam Mendes, with whom he collaborated on The Ferryman, about The Troubles, in 2017. Together, they have developed a slick production in which not a word, not even a breath, is wasted. There is beautiful symmetry built into the production, which is shown when Donnelly and Lara Mcdonnell, as present-day and young Joan, both lie on the same bench at different points in the show and smoke a cigarette. Jokes with a deliberately delayed punchline deliver every time, such as when Sea View resident Mr Halliwell is instructed to take the long route round to the hotel's public entrance, and returns 10 minutes later. And Bryan Dick as the comic Jack Larkin crams in a never-ending stream of jokes like: “My brother’s got five cocks, his trousers fit him like a glove.”
One of the most ingenious parts of Butterworth’s scripting is his ability to say more in the silences – and in what the characters fail to say – than in their actual conversations. There is a brief pause in the second act, which cleverly allows the audience a chance to digest what they have seen only moments before. A huge revelation explains why the Webb family has become so fractured, and the pregnant silence that follows is chilling.
Rob Howell’s naturalistic set firmly roots the production in its two time periods thanks to a cleverly designed rotating stage. The long, winding staircase, which resembles The Grand Staircase in Hogwarts, leads to a series of bedrooms we never see, and inside one of these rooms lies Veronica. By keeping her out of sight, it creates the unsettling feeling that this woman with “purple feet,” who looks incredibly unwell according to Jill, symbolises something monstrous, which should be kept from view.
As the sisters show in a final moment of solidarity and song, some monsters must be left in the past if you are to move on. Sometimes you just have to step away.
Book The Hills of California tickets on London Theatre.
Photo credit: Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell, and Sophia Ally in The Hills of California. Inset: Ophelia Lovibond as Ruby. (Photos by Mark Douet)
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