Set in the summer of 1976, in the driest heatwave of the century, four sisters come back to their home in Blackpool as their mother teeters on the precipice between life and death. As three of the sisters wait for the fourth to arrive, their pasts unravel: from their mother Veronica’s ambitions of turning her daughters into stars like the Andrews Sisters, to the uncomfortable staleness of their current realities, and some of the foulest truths of the music industry.
Captivating from start to finish, The Hills of California comes close to being a masterpiece
It seems fitting that the show premiered at the Harold Pinter Theatre, since Jez Butterworth is heavily influenced by Pinter’s work, and it shows. With the outside of the theatre adorned with the names of the theatrical titans leading the project (Sonia Friedman producing, Butterworth writing, and Sam Mendes directing) The Hills of California has a lot of promise to live up to. But from comedic lovable start to tender and cathartic finish, the new play delivers. Sam Mendes shows a masterful understanding of the questions and priorities the play asks, and there is a moment halfway through the third act so brilliantly directed I wish I could rewind it and watch it again.
With gut-wrenching immediacy, he turns the script (thoroughly stamped with Butterworth’s trademark wit) into an extraordinary production, reflecting on the uncomfortable, pertinent realities of exploitation, and the ways these realities are shrouded by shame, nostalgia, taboo and deception.
Like all great drama, there’s a great deal of attention put into the space between characters. Their differences and incompatibilities are especially brought out in their costumes, by Rob Howell, the designer behind Matilda the Musical. His set perfectly turns the questions of reality and fantasy, freedom and confinement into physical materia onstage. Along with lighting by Natasha Chivers, the result is a steady reel of carefully designed images, soundtracked perfectly by Nick Powell.
Laura Donnelly’s performance is a tour-de-force in all of her scenes as Veronica, and Leanne Best as Gloria is especially full of life and energy, amid the Blackpool sunburn and sweat. But every actor is incredibly strong and well-cast, and there’s not a dull or unpolished moment, not least amongst the young performers, who show their talent in strong harmonies and mesmerising choreography, in a few fantastic live music sequences.
Other reviews have noted a tonal falter at the end of the play, but it would seem that this has since been corrected, since there isn’t such a moment anymore. And although it may come off as overly sentimental, sentimentality is a central theme of the play, and it utilises this feeling to show us its ugly side as well.
Captivating from start to finish, The Hills of California comes close to being a masterpiece, and will not disappoint serious drama enthusiasts.