The Hills of California ★★★★ Harold Pinter Theatre | Jan 27 - Jun 15, 2024

"The Hills of California" is about broken dreams and mutable memories. Jez Butterworth's new play opens in 1976 Blackpool during the hottest summer on record. Three of four sisters assemble to cope with their dying mother, and emotions boil over as they delve into the past that has brought them to this moment. Although their former home, the Sea View guesthouse actually has no view of the ocean; it is representative of the larger-than-life character who is their mother. She has always been able to see beyond present circumstances to what she wants, and believes she deserves, from life. She is determined that her four daughters will become a new version of the Andrews Sisters, and not since Gypsy's Mama Rose has there been a stage mother more single-minded than Veronica Webb. As the siblings confront their parent's passing, we see how the past and that force-of-nature who is their mother have shaped their emotional lives. Unmarried Jill, nicely drawn by Helena Wilson, has become a timid and unfulfilled caregiver. On the other hand, her sisters, Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond) and Gloria (Leanne Best) have married weak, browbeaten men and their dissatisfaction with their lives is made amusingly apparent. The question mark is the eldest sister, Joan. She is the most similar to the domineering Veronica, but she has been absent and incommunicado for many years. Has she actually managed to escape the past and the claustrophobic control of Sea View? Has she made her mother's dream her own and become a singer in California? Will she show up for the deathwatch? The play deftly cuts between the present situation and the 1950s, and Rob Howell's spectacular set cleverly takes us into the kitchen, and into the past, where we see the girls rehearsing to become the stars their mother envisages. The strong second cast of the sisters in their younger days beautifully complements the outstanding performances by Wilson, Lovibond and Best, but Laura Donnelly as mother Veronica (and later as sister Joan) dominates the stage whenever she appears. This is truly an award-worthy performance. Sam Mendes' direction is quite flawless, and he ensures that we become totally immersed in Butterworth's web of the unforgotten and the unforgiven.

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Mark Douet

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