Review: Jez Butterworth’s Grief-Stricken Family Epic The Hills of California Debuts in London

Laura Donnelly stars in this time-jumping new drama directed by Sam Mendes.

The Hills of California 1
Laura Donnelly with Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell, and Sophia Ally in The Hills of California
(© Marc Douet)

After two blockbusters — Jerusalem and The Ferryman — one has come to expect epics from playwright Jez Butterworth. His latest three-act drama, The Hills of California, is certainly an extravaganza in some ways, with a cast of 23 and a timeline that spans two decades, but it’s domestic in scope instead of national. Opening cold on the West End at the Harold Pinter Theatre under the direction of Sam Mendes, The Hills of California could maybe use another draft to trim the fat, but there are more than a few moments of great beauty and even greater devastation that make it a worthwhile sit.

The setting is a stately old house in the seaside town of Blackpool, circa 1976 (you can practically see the layers of dust adorning Rob Howell’s awe-inspiringly intricate, revolving set, with working staircases and hallways that extend high into the flies). Three siblings — spinster Jill (Helena Wilson), nervous Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond), and angry Gloria (Leanne Best) — are anxiously awaiting their estranged sister Joan, who will hopefully arrive from America before their convalescent mother dies of cancer in the upstairs bedroom.

Mom Veronica (played in 1955-set flashbacks by Laura Donnelly) is the tenacious proprietor of this former bed-and-breakfast. She dreams of turning her four daughters into an Andrews Sisters-style singing group, rehearsing them in the kitchen for a big break which may not ever come. Veronica puts typical stage-mother pressure on each of them (Nancy Allsop, Nicola Turner, Sophia Ally, and Lara McDonnell), but particularly on the magnetic Joan (McDonnell), who is both Veronica’s clear favorite and the standout performer. We come to learn that Joan eventually got semi-famous as a midlevel Laurel Canyon-esque folk singer after shipping out to the States, but as the women come to realize in hindsight, the circumstances surrounding her sudden departure were less than ideal.

Veronica isn’t above using her femininity to get ahead but loses it when she discovers her teenage daughter has learned by example. To say more would ruin some genuine surprises that kept me on the edge of my seat and knocked me out like a ton of bricks; Butterworth has crafted a version of Gypsy with shades of The Homecoming while finding new ways of exploring some well-worn tropes. Wilson, Lovibond, and Best are thoroughly believable, as are their younger counterparts, and the steely Donnelly and softer McDonnell deliver in spades. Filled with familial humor and devastating heartbreak, Butterworth’s absorbing, grief-suffused storytelling and Mendes’s mesmerizing production (haunting lighting by Natasha Chivers) turn in some emotional knockouts.

But neither script nor staging is perfect. At three hours, both text and pacing are oddly lackadaisical in certain spots. Expository conversations meant to set the tone go on for much too long as people come and go from the house. An intermission and a shorter pause seem to exist only for the purposes of arranging the set, rather than being driven by story beats. And there are at least two inconsequential characters who can be excised.

Addressing these issues would pull attention back to central plot, which is as moving, chilling, and absorbing as Butterworth’s best.

Nicola Turner Nancy Allsop Lara McDonnell Sophia Ally The Hills of California Harold Pinter Theatre Photo by Mark Douet
Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell, and Sophia Ally in The Hills of California
(© Marc Douet)