Theatre Review: The Hills Of California, Harold Pinter Theatre

Theatre Review: The Hills Of California, Harold Pinter Theatre

The Hills of California arrives in the West End with an impeccable pedigree. The director is Sam Mendes, the writer is Jez Butterworth. They’ve had hits on stage and screen before (such as Jerusalem for JB, James Bond for Sam Mendes) and they teamed up for Butterworth’s last theatre success The Ferryman. The Hills of California looks set to be another big winner, though maybe not in the Jerusalem league.

The scene is the sweltering summer of 1976 and a group of sisters are gathering at their dying mother Veronica’s Blackpool B&B. It is instantly clear that there are sibling rivalries and complex undercurrents to this shared history. As the drama progresses these are played out to devastating effect.

After establishing the characters the impressive rotating multi-tiered set by Rob Howell swivels and we spin back a further two decades. The same siblings, plus absent Joan, are being ruthlessly coached to be a successful vocal group in the style of the Andrews Sisters. It’s a style that was probably dated even back then - who would choose Boogie Woogie Bugle Boys over Jailhouse Rock? But mum is determined to make them stars. At any cost. 

It is very much a play with women at the forefront. In fact the men tend to be there for comic effect and there is plenty of light relief, particularly at the start. In the 1976 era Shaun Dooley (last seen as a good guy in the Alan Bates Post Office drama) plays hapless hubby Bill who thinks music has been going downhill since Eleanor Rigby, though he does have a soft spot for Bryan Ferry. Back in the 1956 scenes lodger Bryan Dick play Jack, who cracks jokes so cheesy – "Did you hear about the man with 5 cocks? His pants fit him like a glove" –.they deserve to get him kicked off the end of Blackpool Pier.

The female cast dominates. Helen Wilson plays geeky Jill, Leanne Best as Gloria seems in a pretty tired marriage, Ophelia Lovibond’s Ruby suffers from breathless panic attacks. Will missing sister Joan ever turn up? Spoiler, she is played magnificently by Laura Donnelly, who also plays Veronica in the flashbacks, so yes, she does turn up – in an enviable hippy coat and swigging Wild Turkey 

The young flashback siblings are played by Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell and Sophia Ally (pictured), who have less to get their teeth into dramatically apart from in one pivotal moment, but certainly deliver when required. Their syncopated songs add a light touch to a work that comes dappled with darker hues. 

Somehow though there is an uneven feel to the production. The first half is clearly stronger. After the interval there is maybe too much going on at times. There are too many strands to resolve in one sitting, even for a writer as formidable writer as Butterworth. 

The Hills of California certainly leaves its mark though. It is a play about guilt and grief and thwarted dreams. But there is much more which it would be prudent not to reveal. Some threads feel a little tacked on, others feel absolutely central. 

Butterworth and Mendes have created an epic family drama clocking in at three hours (including interval). If at times it feels a little overstretched there is much here to relish. If relish is the correct word. Both young and old casts sing beautifully, the pin-sharp harmonies in contrast to the disharmony in their characters' lives. 

Harold Pinter Theatre, London until June 15. Book here.

Picture: Mark Douet

****four stars



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