Writer: Jez Butterworth
Director: Sam Mendes
It is now almost seven years since The Ferryman hit the London stage, making it a long wait for Jez Butterworth to stake another claim to be dubbed our greatest living playwright. That 2017 Ireland-set drama went on to pick up both the Olivier and Tony awards for Best New Play, so, whatever the fate of The Hills of California, its arrival must rank as a major event in theatre.
Belying the play’s title, its setting is the Northern English seaside resort, Blackpool. It begins in the long hot Summer of 1976. The Sea View guest house lacks air conditioning and it has seen better days, but it has never viewed the sea. The set, designed by Rob Howell and reaching up to the theatre’s ceiling, is a labyrinth of steep staircases, brown furniture and bric-à-brac. A non-functioning jukebox sits centre stage.
The owners are the Webb family and three sisters belonging thereto – Jill (Helena Wilson), Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond) and Gloria (Leanne Best) – gather in the guest house while their mother, Veronica, lies dying upstairs. They await the arrival of a fourth sister, Joan, who had left to pursue a show business career in California 20 years earlier. It will be for the four to decide whether to authorise a final dose of morphine to end their mother’s pain.
The writer sees this dysfunctional family as a microcosm of a wider world that was caught in a vice-like grip by American culture in the early years of movies, radio and television. Flashback scenes transport us to the mid-1950s when Veronica (Laura Donnelly in blazing form) is seen moulding her young daughters to become the next Andrews Sisters, targeting the London Palladium, Carnegie Hall and beyond. This pushy showbiz mum is a Mamma Rose from Gypsy for whom nothing is coming up roses. The Andrews Sisters themselves are already yesterday’s news, having been replaced in popularity by the likes of Nat King Cole, and Elvis Presley lies on the horizon.
An understanding that the Hollywood dream is actually a mirage runs through the play like the lettering in a stick of Blackpool rock. Butterworth’s dialogue merges the lyrical and the earthy, threaded together by strong, dark humour. He writes as if he has spent half a lifetime surrounded by Northern matriarchs.
The play reunites Butterworth with director Sam Mendes, who showed with The Ferryman a flair for marshalling enormous casts. Here 22 actors have speaking parts and they come up with several delightful cameos in support of the four wonderful principals. This production’s greatest strength lies in the loving care devoted to giving every character depth and meaning.
From the ashes of shattered dreams, the play seeks reconciliation. Arguably the third act is a little overlong and brings in unnecessary plot asides, but a climax in which truths and falsehoods become inseparable brings the drama to a wistful and wise conclusion. Yes, at three hours including an interval, it is a long play, but sometimes it is impossible to have too much of a good thing.
Runs until 15 June 2024