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Review: The Hills of California (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale



In a year full of exciting plays hitting the West End, one of the most hotly anticipated is the world premiere of the latest collaboration from Jez Butterworth and Sam Mendes. Hot on the heels of the storming success of past collaboration The Ferryman and their own critically acclaimed productions Jerusalem and The Lehman Trilogy, hopes are high for The Hills of California but would this show be able to repeat their previous collaborations and be a California dream?

In contrast to the title, The Hills of California isn’t set in California… or anywhere near it. Instead, the action takes place in Blackpool which is essentially the California of the UK (said nobody ever). In an old guest house called Sea View (named in spite of its lack of sea view) on the driest summer in 200 years, the Webb sisters return to say one last goodbye to their mother as she lies on her death bed. As old feelings from their past come back to haunt them, the sisters desperately attempt to find a peaceful resolution as they prepare to close an extremely difficult chapter.


Spread over three even acts, Jez Butterworth’s writing is given time to breathe, develop and excel in what is initially a slow-burner of a play. This approach allows us to get to know the characters which puts the stakes higher as we genuinely invest in them. A master-stroke in Butterworth’s writing (and this is a slight spoiler) is the decision to watch the action from two different timelines – with the Webb sisters as adults and reverting back to their childhood, giving us a much clearer glimpse into what caused the fractures in their relationships and why they grew up to be the women they became. The depth and definition to Butterworth’s writing is astounding to take in with painstaking detail to the characters histories and personalities with lines that range from being riotously funny to painfully unsettling.

The way the story unfolds paves way for a flawlessly executed final act, which ranks among the greatest hours of theatre I have ever experienced. In an unexpected comparison to one of the sister’s, I too found myself short of breath as I kept up with the rapid turn of events that led the audience to the wholly satisfying climax. There will be no spoilers about what transpires in this final act but the whole sequence was incredibly moving end emotional, resonating with me in such a powerful way, I struggled to formulate my words upon leaving the theatre – an occurrence that truly speaks for a remarkable play.


Sam Mendes’ direction is every bit as jaw-dropping as Jez Butterworth’s writing with every detail meticulously thought out, leading to complex, precise and note-perfect choices at every turn. The way the action is navigated through two different timelines (think This Is Us and you get the idea) allows for some creative and playful choices. Like The Ferryman before it, Butterworth and Mendes very clearly have a partnership which allows them to maximise their creativity with one pure vision and this reflects on stage in a show that doesn’t put a foot wrong from start to finish.

One element of The Hills of California that elevates its impact is in its use of music. A key factor to the story of the show and history of the Webb family, the significance of music is stated in the show with its ability to tell a story. Cleverly, the music in the play acts as a way of transitioning from one timeline to the other as the (rather beautiful) singing from the cast transports them and us into a world of memory from events long ago. The usage of this was a point of difference in this in contrast to other plays, with Nick Powell’s composition and arrangements by him and Candida Caldicot taking some well-loved and familiar songs and maximising their storytelling ability, with the show’s final musical number creating a sense of poignancy which perfectly rounded off the story. The musical numbers come alive with Ellen Kane’s gorgeous choreography, bringing a surprising nature to the play but when that segues into the action seamlessly.


Rob Howell’s set design soars on the Harold Pinter Theatre with the interior of Seaview on display upon multiple levels, impressing not only with its scale but with its attention to detail. Beautifully created and incredibly clever in its ability to rotate while keeping a connection to its upper levels, subtle touches transport the action from one decade to the other while still keeping the timeless and perhaps outdated nature of the run-down guest house. Natasha Chivers lighting design beautifully complements the set, creating a realistic looking setting. Always visually stimulating with great detail spared on the cast’s costumes to resemble the different eras.

While all the creative elements equally impress, the astonishing performances from the wonderful cast take an already sensational play and take it to stratospherically genius new levels. Helena Wilson channels every bit of confliction in Jill’s history in her captivating portrayal of the character, forming the closest bonds with her sisters and, in turn, the audience. Her performance fittingly holds the story together as we meet her commanding sisters. Ophelia Lovibond’s performance as Ruby at times warms the heart and at others breaks it with a childlike sweetness transcending both timelines. Leanne Best gives a dominating performance as the brashy Gloria with her hard exterior showcasing a nuance in her acting as the story unfolds.


Their younger counterparts also give mesmerising performances, with the added element of their collective nature – something that is lost due to time on their older equivalents. Nancy Allsop, Nicola Turner, Sophia Ally and Lara Mcdonnell all shine both individually and as a group in their turns as Young Gloria, Young Jill, Young Ruby and Young Joan respectively. A standout performance belongs to Laura Donnelly who shows an enormous amount of talent and versatility throughout the play as the matriarchal figure whose own journey holds the key to the overarching theme. Where she amazes in every scene she is takes part in, it’s her rather different appearance in the final act that really wows with a wonderfully understated and incredibly impactful character performance.

If expectations were high for The Hills of California, they didn’t just deliver, they absolutely smashed it. Here we are watching two creatives at the top of their game show just why they are experts in their craft and the end result is an incredibly special watch. A fantastic story, full of depth, its true success lies in the power it holds, resulting in a story that stays with you long after you leave the theatre. While some of the themes are heavy, they are handled with sensitivity and realism to create a deeply affecting piece of work whose impact is felt through some stunning exposition. We may only be in February but this is the first real contender for the best play of the year. Absolutely remarkable and a must-see for anyone who loves theatre or just loves humanity.


The Hills of California plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 15th June. Tickets available here.



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