Jez Butterworth’s first play in seven years unfurls with the richness and depth of a well-crafted novel.
Backed by West End super producer Sonia Friedman, ‘The Hills of California’ has a level of resource behind it that would probably fund whole seasons at his alma mater the Royal Court, where his previous works have premiered. But by heck the ‘Jerusalem’ playwright – and his big-name director Sam Mendes – know how to put those resources to work.
Initially it’s pretty much a kitchen sink drama, following a fractious group of sisters: the Webbs. In the sweltering summer of ’76, they have reunited at their childhood home: a Blackpool guest house somewhat ambitiously called Seaview (it doesn’t have a sea view).
The occasion is the imminent death of their mother Veronica, unheard and unseen upstairs, rotting away in the final stages of stomach cancer. It begins with a conversation between square, stay-at-home daughter Jill (Helena Wilson) and Penny (Natasha Magigi), a nurse who offers to put the family in touch with a doctor willing to end Veronica's pain. Jill is interested, but won’t do it until her sisters arrive, two of whom duly do: blunt, pragmatic Gloria (Leanne Best) and fiercely witty Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond).
The final sister is Joan: we don’t know anything about her, except she apparently lives in America now. Her plane is delayed, and Jill is adamant they put any mercy killings on ice until her arrival.
Unexpectedly, the second scene sees ‘The Hills of California’ shift from ‘70s period drama to a ‘50s one, as a second cast comes in and we meet the girls – including Joan – as children, now under the watchful eye of the ambitious younger Veronica (Laura Donnelly). She wants more for her kids than Blackpool, and is coaching them as a vocal harmony group in the hope they’ll hit the big time. And they might: they’re impeccably drilled, and their harmonies are glorious.
Without wishing to get into spoiler territory, it’s a drama about the pain and joy and complicatedness of family, that centres on the gradually unfurling, never unambiguously resolved mystery of what precisely went down between Veronica and the younger Joan.
Butterworth writes – and Mendes directs – with a deft, novelistic fluidity, as the story flits from one period to another. Tangents are taken. New characters are woven in at daringly late junctures. It’s increasingly dense and charged.
Butterworth for the most part writes the Webbs wonderfully: smart, tough, vulnerable women left in different shades of disarray over a childhood dream that never came to be. They feel like tangible, real beings, grounded in a world in which the men are largely absurd background figures – weak husbands like Bryan Dick’s hapless Dennis, or Shawn Dooley’s infuriating Mr Halliwell, an unreconstructed weirdo who can communicate only in bad jokes.
The performances are uniformly tremendous, notably Lovibond’s quicksilver Ruby and Best’s pained, angry Gloria. There is first-rate accent work: enormous respect to dialect coach Danièle Lydon for thoroughly indoctrinating her largely non-Lancastrian cast. And there’s stunning work from designer Rob Howell: the main set is simply the living room of the guesthouse, but there is something profoundly haunting about the towering, almost Escher-like set of stairs that erupts from it, a conduit from the humdrum downstairs to the unseen realm of death that hovers in the wings.
What makes the show, though, is Donnelly. Yes, she probably didn’t have to audition for this one – she’s Butterworth’s wife – but I don’t think anyone’s going to complain. As Veronica, she’s tightly wound but tender: a complicated ball of conflicted feelings. She’s undoubtedly something of a momzilla. But her desire to see her daughters perform feels motivated by pride, love and hope they’ll have a better life than she did. She is driven, but her ambition is for them, not herself – which causes her to make a catastrophic decision that scars the family forever.
But Donnelly also has a second role, as the adult Joan. To be intentionally vague about something that happens late, she is now greatly changed from the perky girl in the ’50s. After an astonishing entrance scene, Donnelly’s otherworldly presence as Joan electrifies a show that palpably builds in power and ambition as it goes. ‘The Hill of California’ threatens to climax with the same sort of stunning metaphysical eruptions that crowned ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘The Ferryman’.
Unfortunately, Butterworth fumbles the plot a little at the end. While his female characters are wonderful, what actually happens to them can feel cliche-bound, based on a distinctly pulpy view of the female experience. Again, I’m not going to spoil. But a big late revelation about one of the sisters feels disappointingly cheap and even silly; ‘The Hills of California’ ends on a stumble (even if the final image is beautiful).
‘Jerusalem’ is still more or less reckoned to be the best play of the twenty-first century so far – the bar is set absurdly high for a new Butterworth work. If it’s not faultless writing, I’d still say ‘The Hills of California’ handily clears that bar. The cast and director and the blank cheque from Sonia Friedman help. But Butterworth remains a one-off, a man who can write plays about ordinary people that carry the charge of the great tragedies.