Friday 9 February 2024

The Hills of California

 Harold Pinter Theatre

3rd February, 2024, matinee

Is that a true story?

It’s a good one

Jez Butterworth’s exceptional new play sees four sisters reuniting at their childhood home, a former Blackpool guesthouse way past its glory days, in anticipation of their mother’s death. Set in double time, the play moves between the blistering heatwave of 1976 and the sisters’ childhood in the 50s where they dream of becoming a famous close-harmony quartet. The earlier period informs the later one, lending it pathos and showing the past which now haunts the family’s present. Butterworth’s first play since The Ferryman, and his first to debut in the West End, The Hills of California was always going to be a hot ticket. In Sam Mendes’ absorbing production, which never outstays its welcome in a near three-hour runtime, it lives up to those expectations. Rich with detail and characters that are layered with their own inner lives, The Hills of California masterfully explores the legacies of abuse and the way we use stories to shape our lives.

Even in 1976, the unwelcome forces of change have hit the back streets of Blackpool. The local shop is now a Co-Op and there are parking meters everywhere. It’s a shock to Gloria (Leanne Best) who, with her husband and two teenagers, have just travelled ‘200 miles across the Gobi Desert’ to return to her childhood home in the sweltering heat. The Seaview however, once a luxury guesthouse and spa, and never with an actual sea view, has not changed a bit. It’s here she meets youngest sister Jill (Helena Wilson). Jill’s been there all her life, taking care of their mum who’s now in the final stages of cancer. She tells Gloria what her mum’s been up to in recent years, going to the Bingo and winning tea with Ken Dodd that she never went to. Convinced their mum only went to the Bingo because of the all-day bar, Gloria further probes Jill why she didn’t go instead. ‘Me? No fear’ is her response, giving the impression she hasn’t done very much all these years. Jill can be mousy and naïve (smoking in secret even though her mum’s bed-bound) but later shows that, despite being the youngest, she’s also the strongest. Family reunion plays featuring siblings coming together in the face of a parent’s death are not new, from Appropriate (currently being revived on Broadway) to August: Osage County. But in The Hills of California their mother, Veronica, is still hanging on. It adds a sense of time pressure, all these sisters and in-laws gathering for something momentous, heightened by the stifling heat – ‘All the rivers have dried up. It’s like a sign’ Gloria says knowingly. That sense of foreboding is not only about their mother’s death but also the uncertain return of their sister Joan, who’s lived in California after getting a record contract and hasn’t been home since.

In the earlier scenes we see Veronica (Laura Donnelly), also in her glory days. A Blackpool Mama Rose, she devotes her energy and the profits made from her guests to propelling her daughters into the big time. Modelling themselves on the American swing troupe The Andrews Sisters, she dreams of getting them out of performing at tea dances at the church hall and onto the stages of the North Pier and beyond. When a top agent, the American Luther St John (Corey Johnson), auditions the girls on a visit to the town, we see the events leading up to that dream being shattered and Joan going to the States alone. Later, in the third act, the adult Joan (also Donnelly) returns to Seaview in an entrance which is bathed in Natasha Chivers’ atmospheric lighting and accompanied to the building sound of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’. Donnelly is at ease with both roles, the highly strung Veronica contrasting with Joan’s Californian Cool. She has the confidence of someone who travels lightly but has her own emotional baggage and surprises in tow. The decision to double the roles prompts you to reflect on their similarities (particularly the mistakes Veronica made that Joan is trying to avoid). The reunion brings out a bitterness Gloria has harboured for Joan, jealous of the apparent success she’s enjoyed in America and victim blaming her for the events all those years earlier. But Joan is armed with her own story. Telling Ruby of a pizza delivery job she was fired from, we hear how she spent an evening getting drunk with two of the surviving Anderson sisters. A reconciliation of sorts.

Butterworth’s writing and Rob Howell’s detailed design provides a sense of the house’s history and lived-in quality. Each bedroom is named after a US state and the top of the stage hints at a second staircase leading us to imagine a sprawling guesthouse. The parlour is dominated by an anachronous Tiki bar, and we hear comments from an old visitor’s book, ranging from compliments for a lovely bank holiday weekend to ‘Shithole’. Sam Mendes brings the play’s many layers to the stage in all their shades of light and dark, getting the most from his cast. Ophelia Lovibond’s Ruby almost returns to a childlike state over the course of the play, coming downstairs in the middle of a baking, sleepless night clutching a hot water bottle for comfort. Best fits the mold of her mother: strong, funny, antagonistic. And whilst the play belongs to the four sisters, there’s fine supporting work from Bryan Dick, Shaun Dooley and Richard Lumsden.

The Hills of California (along with The Ferryman) feels like a departure from Butterworth’s earlier works. More mature, funny but less reliant on performative stichomythia, with themes emerging from the fullness of character and complexity of story. Its setting is grounded, unlike the more figurative settings of The River or even Parlour Song. And whereas the stories told in Jerusalem give Rooster his legendary status and are a warning about the stories we tell ourselves as a nation, the stories told in The Hills of California have more of a personal resonance. Stories can be told and remembered differently on each outing. They can be used as projections of our own aspirations, suits of armour to hide shame, weapons to cast guilt, vehicles to convince ourselves we’ve found peace. How much do we really change? As the lights fade on the sisters singing ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ twenty years after they last sung it, they still remember the lyrics and intricate harmonies, each sister slotting into place again, an attempt to make peace with one another and themselves.

The Hills of California runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 15th June.

Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell and Sophia Ally in The Hills of California. Credit: Mark Douet.

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