The Hills of California at Harold Pinter Theatre
Jez Butterworth, who cemented himself as a legendary theatre writer with his hit Jerusalem, reunites with Sam Mendes. The director has enjoyed considerable stage success in recent years with such smashes as The Lehman Trilogy and The Motive and the Cue. Alongside Butterworth he has collaborated on the Bond films Skyfall and Spectre and the award-winning 2017 play The Ferryman. With such plaudits between them, The Hills of California is an early highlight of the 2024 theatre calendar and audience anticipation is unquestionably high.
We are transported back to the sizzling summer of 1976 when an unprecedented heatwave enveloped the UK. This three-hour play, however, is more of a smouldering slow-burn than a ferocious fire. Those expecting something in the vein of Jerusalem might be somewhat deflated initially, but there is a deep richness to this play, which provokes thought and compels one to ponder as they experience its ruminating, meditative exploration of humanity.
Three sisters come together as their mother, Veronica, lies bedbound on the cusp of death. Jill is the only sibling to have stayed at the family home – a former guest house in Blackpool by the name of Seaview. The irony being that there is no sea view from the property.
Helena Wilson does a stellar job in conveying the sheer exhaustion, tedium and monotony of a routine which has become a way of life for her. In contrast, Gloria (Leanne Best) is a loud firecracker while Ophelia Lovibond’s Ruby personifies anxiety. The siblings interact so convincingly with Butterworth’s astute character observations coming to the fore in the most naturalistic of ways. Tension and anger simmer beneath the surface with humour often masking the subtext of these sibling communications. Thanks to the direction and assured acting talent, silences speak volumes throughout this brooding yarn. A fourth sister, Joan, has not been seen for two decades. Her return inevitably unearths further long-dormant truths which have been ushered under the carpet.
Rob Howell’s detailed set revolves and sweeps us into the past. We are back in the 50s when Laura Donnelly’s Veronica was coaching her girls into becoming an all-singing, all dancing quartet akin to the Andrews Sisters. America was the goal and Veronica was the driving force behind it – needing to see her own ambitions realised through her daughters. Shifting between timelines, we gain a fuller picture of why these women are the way they are.
The pace moves remarkably swiftly due to both the punchy character-driven dialogue and the performances of the cast. That said, a script edit might have been beneficial in achieving a greater impact on the audience. The entire cast and creatives, however, are on top of their game here with Butterworth constantly leaving food for thought.
This might not, at first, be up there with his previous efforts in terms of immediate gratification. Nor is there a rewarding climax. Rather, this delicate little play on an expansive stage leaves one mulling over what they have witnessed. A kitchen sink drama on the surface, but an epic commentary on life beneath its deceptively simple façade.
Photo: Mark Douet
The Hills of California is at Harold Pinter Theatre from 27th January until 15th June 2024. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.