The Hills of California
Harold Pinter Theatre | ★★★★✩
Jez Butterworth has set his latest, long-awaited play in the fictional yet typical Sea View, a Blackpool guest house that has no view of the sea. All Butterworth plays are judged by his masterpiece Jerusalem, which has a rollocking, random energy that makes it impossible to anticipate where it is going to go next. But that’s not so with this play directed by Sam Mendes.
Set in the stifling summer of 1976, the familiar premise is of a sibling reunion caused by the imminent death of a parent. Here three sisters await the return of the fourth, Joan as their mother, the former landlady of the establishment now run by daughter Jill (Helena Wilson), lies dying in one of the rooms upstairs.
We know that Joan is flying back from America where she escaped the run-of-the-mill lifestyles led by the others: stale marriages, stamina-sapping children or, in the case of Jill, no love or family life at all except for being the guardian of the mother in her hard-drinking dotage.
Flashbacks convey the family history. As children the sisters were drilled by their mother — a single-minded single parent — to be the next Andrews Sisters. Joan (Laura Donnelly) is the loose cannon among the siblings and was also the most talented. She is singled out by an American agent (Corey Johnson) for whom the “Webb Sisters” perform one steamy afternoon in the guest house kitchen. The legacy of that separation fuels the tension between the sisters. The hot summer air is saturated with disappointment. But Butterworth’s dialogue is so funny that sadness becomes a source of comedy.
The women in Butterworth’s play – which has reportedly been influenced by his sister and a family reunion ahead of her untimely death – are beautifully performed by this excellent cast in which Wilson, Ophelia Lovibond and Leanne Best convey the love and resentments that bind these sisters into unfulfilled adulthood.
Rob Howell’s design is a thing of beauty. The set is dominated by the guest house’s soaring wooden staircase off which the doors to the rooms named after American states rise into the theatre’s eves.
The Hills of California is hugely enjoyable, achingly poignant and brimful of humour spiced with brassy northern wit. If I have a gripe, however, it is that Mendes and Butterworth deploy their vast experience of being among the finest theatre makers of their generation by using well-worn dramatic techniques.
The flashback structure, the narrative device of a family reunited because of an impending or recent death, and the long discussed character who arrives late in the action are all very familiar devices.
True, they are deployed here with consummate skill but there is sense of director and writer giving their audience a string of favourite hits instead of new material. Emotionally, narratively and visually, everything here works exactly as it should and as well as expected. And when Jerusalem is comparison, there is something disappointing about that.