Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 15th June 2024
Reviewed by Celia Armand Smith
It’s the summer of 1976 in Blackpool and the heat is all consuming. Jez Butterworth’s newest play directed by Sam Mendes, tells the story of four sisters returning to their childhood home to say goodbye to their dying mother. The Hills of California sees sisters Jill (Helena Wilson) who stayed behind to look after their mother and missed out on life, Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond) who is a bored housewife prone to panic attacks, and Gloria (Leanne Best) who arrives in a sweaty and sweary whirlwind with her dopey husband and kids, gather at the family home. They are awaiting the arrival of Joan (Laura Donnelly), the glamorous oldest sister who they haven’t seen or heard from in twenty years after she left in hurry for America despite being their mother’s supposed favourite. For the first two acts, her absence is huge and consuming.
The entire play takes place in the family’s struggling guesthouse, Sea View (with no view of the sea). At the centre of Rob Howell’s stunning set is a huge imposing staircase that leads to several rooms named after American states, such as the glamorous far away lands of Minnesota and Alaska. The set rotates and the stairs swing round to reveal the sisters as children in the 1950s, singing in the kitchen with their mother, Veronica (also played by Laura Donnelly). Veronica is an ambitious stage mother who is pushing her children towards stardom with an Andrews Sisters style group whether they are along for the ride or not. The close harmonies and dancing are beautifully executed and they pay brilliant homage to the sister groups of the 40s and 50s.
Things take an inevitable turn when a slimy American agent comes to the house to see the girls perform at the behest of a local comic played by Bryan Dick. Shaun Dooley and Richard Lumsden round out the cast with a tragic comedy and musical stylings, all the male cast members playing characters in the past and present. The men in the play are all kind and hapless or creeps, there for comic effect or to be the receiving end of a sharp tongue.
This is a play with women at its centre about family, grief, and sacrifice. It is however laugh out loud funny with Ophelia Lovibond and Leanne Best delivering some of the best lines in the piece, and the singing from both the younger and older casts is achingly beautiful with perfect harmonies.
Never faltering in its ability to hold the audience’s attention, this ensemble piece from is both captivating and heartbreaking, and you would expect nothing less from Jez Butterworth. In the final moments of The Hills of California, the sisters are unified by song, and all the past traumas seem to dissipate and a peace finally falls over the house.