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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Hills Of California
Harold Pinter Theatre     Spring 2024

Jez Butterworth’s nostalgic, romanticised view of doomed mothers and their damaged children in his play The Hills of California at the Harold Pinter Theatre takes us, at a leisurely pace, through an old representation of women.

The play is divided into three distinct sections set in two rooms of the Seaview Guest House in Blackpool, shifting between the year 1976 and a year in the 1950s.

Its theme is headlined in the first scene set in 1976 with Jill (Helena Wilson), still a virgin in her 30s, pottering about with an empty baby carrier while upstairs her mother Veronica, in a great deal of pain, is dying of stomach cancer. 

The nurse discreetly mentions to Jill, who has been looking after her dying mother, that certain doctors can deliver an end-of-life solution to the pain should the next of kin feel it is necessary.

Soon after this, Jill is joined in the room by her married sisters Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond), who is bored and prone to physical fits that may stop her breathing, and the almost permanently angry Gloria (Leanne Best), who seems irritated by her partner and teenage children.

She is only too willing to get them out of the way, sending her husband Dennis (Bryan Dick) off to shop while she waits with the sisters, speculating if the older fourth sister Joan will return from California where she has lived, ignoring her mother's letters for a good two decades.

The second section takes us back to what seems like a happier more hopeful 1950s.

The mother, Veronica (Laura Donnelly), full of dreams, is encouraging her incredibly musical daughters Jill (Nicola Turner), Ruby (Sophia Ally) Gloria and Joan, dressed in their school clothes, to sing harmonies and dance in the style of the successful Andrews Sisters. She tells them, “A song is a dream, a place to be, somewhere to live.”

The sisters, in particular Gloria (Nancy Allsop), look up to their older, confident fifteen-year-old sister Joan (Lara Mcdonnell).

Their big opportunity comes one day when the music agent Luther St. John (Corey Johnson) arrives in their kitchen to see them perform. Although their choreography and harmonies are impressive, he insists the acoustics are poor and wants to hear Joan alone in a separate room, the result of which will carry Joan off to America.

The play is centred on the women’s point of view. The male characters are slight and irrelevant. They seem unable to communicate and dodge difficulties rather than deal with them.

Veronica surrounds herself with illusions tuned to her dream. The guest rooms of the Seaview Guest House, which has no view of the sea, are named after different states of America, such as Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi.

She offers a changing series of stories about the death of the father sometime in the war. It is difficult to believe any of the stories.

Her 1950s male interest is the manic comedian of trivial puns, Jack Larkin (Bryan Dick), who for instance, at one point refers to a man with “five cocks” whose “trousers fit him like a glove.” There’s nothing like an avalanche of puns to stave off anything serious.

Joan (Laura Donnelly), looking like some worn-out stoned wreckage from a hippie commune, will arrive in the third section of the play that takes place in 1976.

She is no longer the confident, excited fifteen-year-old girl who left in the 1950s, but conversations will reveal why she hasn’t communicated and what happened in that room the night of the audition.

Apart from one, the sisters have lost their dreams and seem defeated. But one of them will carry the baton for the traditional role of a woman and find a use for the baby carrier that appeared in the first scene. A doctor arrives by special request to end the pain, and we hear the song Dream a Little Dream of Me.

A very effective, confident cast, directed by Sam Mendes, delivers a strong, watchable performance on a revolving stage that allows one room to be fitted to look like a beachside bar of the 1950s.

However the third section is a sentimental, slightly implausible development of a set of themes that take three hours to incubate in a shallow way that doesn't really engage with the debilitating illusions of its characters.

Keith McKenna

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Review of  The Hills Of California - Harold Pinter Theatre 2024

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