"Jez Butterworth and Sam Mendes’ new play peels back the layers of a family and a town that keep dreaming in the face of their own decrepitude." writes FETCH critic Paige Bruton.
Blackpool, 1976. The Webb sisters have returned to Seaview, their family home and guesthouse that overlooks a parking lot. Victoria (Laura Donnelly), their mother, lies dying in a room hidden in the eaves of the theatre. She’s in pain, but waits for the arrival of her eldest and favourite daughter, Joan (also played by Laura Donnelly), the only child who lived out Victoria’s dream of finding fame and fortune in the hills of California.
The play is structured according to a series of dualities: the set is split between a public drawing room in Seaview as well as the private living quarters of the family; time is fractured between the present – the final days of Victoria’s life, and flashback – the Webb girls’ childhood, largely defined by their involvement in a singing and dancing troupe arranged by their mother. The play is also split metaphysically between reality and a dreamland – referenced by the title and a recurring song, “The Hills of California” (“a song is a place to be” instructs Victoria), that represents fame and success only found outside of Blackpool. The effect is a captivating storyline that gradually erodes these binaries: the trauma of the past catches up with the present and viewers witness how dreams and lies have devastating effects on the realities of the sisters.
Over the course of the play the drama builds in intensity, with the first act appearing to follow a well-trodden narrative of a family reunion that exposes grievances between a supposed “golden child” and those that feel they have been passed along. However, in the second act, a suspected secret about Joan is revealed unceremoniously by the husband (Shaun Dooley) of Joan’s sister, Gloria (Leanne Best). From there, the action follows countless twists and turns, each revelation more surprising than the next, without the play ever falling into genuine contrivance.
Despite touching on themes such as dreams as well as lies, motherhood as well as sisterhood and sacrifice, trauma and forgiveness, The Hills of California refuses to pigeonhole itself into one narrative or arrive at a concrete conclusion. Audience members were captivated by the final act, held on the edge of their seats for a finale that ultimately seemed to encapsulate the melancholic but hopeful state of Blackpool itself: a town whose future might best “be served – and saved – by looking back,” according to the play’s program.
Donnelly, who inhabits two all-star roles, is the play’s stand out performance, remarkably capturing a severe but well-intentioned Victoria in the late 1950s, as well as a cool but damaged Joan in the 1976. The music of the play was also particularly spectacular, offering glimpses of beauty and harmony between the Webb sisters, whose relationship is otherwise tumultuous, and is portrayed on a set that can only be described as gaudy.
For those looking for a truly quality night at the theatre, with a play that avoids becoming overly sentimental or sensationalist in order to evoke emotion in its audience, The Hills of California may be among Butterworth’s best and most mature works to date.
Cover image credit: Oliver Rosser