Review: The Hills of California, Harold Pinter Theatre

Whereas it is lovely to see a bit of Blackpool in the West End, Jez Butterworth’s new play The Hills of California struggles to live up to expectation at the Harold Pinter Theatre

“It’s too late. A piano must be played”

Over an impressively short number of plays, Jez Butterworth has managed to build a monolithic theatrical reputation with dramas like The Ferryman and The River (and another one too, though long time readers will remember I didn’t care for that one…). So much so that he can now pay the Royal Court short shrift and open his latest play straight into the West End with Sonia Friedman Productions and Neal Street and given that The Hills of California clocks in at a hefty 3 hours, that’s no mean feat.

We open in the middle of a heatwave in 1976 in a Blackpool guest house that is named Sea View even if it is tucked away on a back street. Its clearly seen better days, as has its owner Veronica who is dying in one of its rooms upstairs, and so her daughters are preparing to say their goodbyes. Jill, the one who stayed, Ruby and Gloria gather in the parlour but Joan, long absent after moving to California, still hasn’t turned up. Memories of their 1950s childhood and their mother’s dreams for them offer us clues as to why.

Rob Howell’s impressive set allows Sam Mendes’ production to nimbly switch between periods, unveiling the secrets and lies scattered throughout this family’s history. Veronica had dreams of making her girls into an Andrews Sisters-esque group but as we discover she took her stage mother lessons from Mama Rose, the damage done ripples through the decades. And as is so often the case with families, memories mutate into mythology and so it is nigh on impossible to nail the truth of the situation.

For two acts, the show sustains its epic pretensions with studied excellence and poignant silences aplenty. In the 70s, Helena Wilson’s tightly wound Joan is frustration personified, Ophelia Lovibond’s Ruby affable but anxious and Leanne Best’s achingly unhappy Gloria are superb, psychologically and physically estranged as they space out on the stage. And in the 50s, their younger selves have their dreams tightly controlled by Laura Donnelly’s steely Veronica, unable to stop her own hurt from hurting her daughters.

The final act doesn’t quite stick the landing though. For all the power in foregrounding female characters, there’s something a little grindingly predictable about the story being told there and the shortcuts that it ends up taking. But if the plot ends up a little disappointing, the characters make up for it for the most part, humour bubbling up in hapless husbands and hotel guests, heartbreaking detail in even the smallest of characters trying to tune pianos or offer routes to a mercy killing.

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