The Hills of California

Jez Butterworth
Sonia Friedman Productions and Neal Street Productions
Harold Pinter Theatre

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Laura Donnelly as Veronica with Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell and Sophia Ally as Young Jill, Gloria, Joan and Ruby Credit: Mark Douet
Helena Wilson as Jill Credit: Mark Douet
Leanne Best as Gloria Credit: Mark Douet
Laura Donnelly as Veronica Credit: Mark Douet
Ophelia Lovibond as Ruby Credit: Mark Douet
Niola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell and Sophia Ally as Young Jill, Gloria, Joan and Ruby Credit: Mark Douet

It is the boiling hot summer of 1976 in a Blackpool guesthouse where the rooms are named after the states of the USA. Upstairs, its owner, Veronica, is dying from a virulent and painful stomach cancer, cared for by her unmarried daughter Jill (Helena Wilson), who has stayed with her mother helping to run the place.

Jill’s sisters, bossy, resentful Gloria (Leanne Best) and lively but easily bored Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond), have arrived. The eldest, Joan, is supposed to be on her way from California but her plane has been cancelled. Is that just an excuse, will she really come? She has hardly made any contact in twenty years, never replied to the hundreds of letters Veronica wrote to her.

Supportive district nurse Penny (Natasha Maggi) has hinted at medical help that could end Veronica’s suffering. Should they call one of the doctors whom she has mentioned? Jill insists Joan will come and they must wait for her arrival before deciding.

But this isn’t a play about euthanasia; it is a picture of sibling relationships and dreams that aren’t realised, about untruths and the weight of the past in the shadows of the floors above designer Rob Howell’s carefully detailed residents’ parlour with its straw-roofed bar, up the staircases that climb out of sight and that turn, like those at Hogwarts, to reveal the family parlour behind it and take time back twenty years.

In the 1950s in the parlour of “Seaview”, so called though from nowhere can the sea be seen, a younger Veronica (an entirely convincing Laura Donnelly) is training her daughters to be a close-harmony quartet moulded on the Andrews Sisters. As they demonstrate to Luther St John (Corey Johnson), an American agent who is in Blackpool, their mother has done a good job. Young Gloria, Ruby, Gloria and Joan (Nancy Allsop, Nicola Turner, Sophia Ally and Lara Mcdonnell) are talented, but tastes are changing, the future is Elvis, St John is only interested in Joan, the eldest.

The girls' singing and tap enliven the actiion and not only in the '50s scenes; decades later, their adult selves still retain muscle memory, but there is a painfully dark side to this story. Young and old, the sisters take the stage with the men pushed into the background, providing some quirky humour, as with Shaun Dooley as Mr Halliwell, who can’t stop telling bad jokes, or a resident who, coming home from work, takes a short cut using the back door and comes through the family quarters. Veronica makes him retreat and go round the long way; it's quite a time after that he comes through the front door and makes his way upstairs.

According to Jill, Joan was always her Veronica’s daughter, that’s why it is important she turn up in time, but perhaps that’s not the reason she needs to see her. The Webbs Sisters never became the music stars, though Joan did go to America. Jez Butterworth’s play is long, but Sam Mendes’s production holds the attention in a story that ranges from Variety and child abuse to the way that a jukebox works.

We don’t learn the truth about what happened to the girls’ father. Veronica claims he was a soldier killed in the war but tells a string of versions of how he died, but they do find out what happened to Joan. Though told in rather a rush, it allows Laura Donnelly to give another stunning performance as grown-up Joan as well as playing her 1950s mother.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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