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The Hills of California

Every so often, you’re watching a play about ordinary, deprived, unlucky people and something divine happens and they are are no longer ordinary. The transformative power of live theatre is very strong in Jez Butterworth’s new play.

We open in a Victorian Guesthouse in Blackpool in 1976, during the driest summer in 200 years. The joint is called Seaview (where there’s no view of the sea), and a family is gathering to say goodbye to their dying mother.

The rooms are given the names of American states: “I’m going to Minnesota”.

From here, we spiral back through time.

In the beautifully layered piece, we see younger and older versions of the four sisters.

At one point, matriarch Veronica coaches them, “Now then. Obstacles. Children, who else, in their career, when they were starting out, faced a barrage, nay avalanche of seemingly unsurmountable hurdle snags, bars, blocks and impediments.”

This is a fine piece of craftsmanship, with almost every detail in place. Magic runs through nearly all of Butterworth’s 3 hour drama. (Child cast Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell and Sophia Ally as the younger singing siblings are terrific).

To say that Hills of California is well lit doesn’t do exact justice. It is perfectly lit, by Natasha Chivers, which is to say, the colours are lustrous, the images so completely composed they are almost static – picture postcards of grief.

Yet the most memorable parts of the beautifully acted female-led play don’t *always* reach for that special clarity that makes action memorably poetic.

However, the details accumulate; nearly every detail of meaning is worked out, right down to each flicker of emotion in the supporting characters eyes.

On Rob Howell’s revolving set, with endless stairs, director Sam Mendes handles the cast immaculately; Mendes’ love of the material is palpable; it regularly makes one smile and gulp.

Butterworth isn’t afraid to hook you and to keep hooking you. There are no weak performances, either. The finely balanced tone of Hills of California is startling, both brutal and lyrical. An expansive evening that is heavy with the anticipation of buried secrets about to be revealed.

Laura Donnelley, playing both Veronica and estranged sibling Joan, soars particularly as the matriarch – her words are convincingly hers. Donnelley, Butterworth’s wife, has never been better, you don’t see her trying to act.

As Veronica, she conveys her remorseless watchfulness, sharp intelligence and chip of ice in the heart by coaching her daughters on the path from Lancashire to the London Palladium. She creates a driven, embattled woman – a woman prepared to do whatever it takes for her children to succeed.

“A song is a dream, a place to be, somewhere to live,” she explains, as she gathers them at her feet. 

A few trims and tucks would render it sleeker but part of Butterworth’s charm is the scaffolding that goes into the structure. There is nothing middle of the road about it.

More significantly, the emotional violence of this play is violent; you can’t get it out of your mind. There’s no question Veronica is guilty of allowing her teenage daughter to be left alone with a predatory music producer. 

Yet the harmonies and singing cradle us, quietly enhancing a tale that is at once timely and timeless. Deftly chosen songs (You can see it all come together during a rendition of Nat King Cole’s ‘When I Fall In Love’) put us right there in the moment.

Even so, it’s hard to find a critical language to account for the delicacy and intimacy of this play. This is an emotionally piercing and beautifully understated tale of family estrangement and loss.

What a pleasure.

‘The Hills of California’ runs until 15 June, Harold Pinter Theatre, London. haroldpintertheatre.co.uk