Photo: Mark Douet

It’s been seven long years since we last had a new play from celebrated playwright Jez Butterworth – 2017’s The Ferryman, set during The Troubles, won both the Olivier Award for Best New Play and the Tony Award for Best Play. He also wrote 2009’s Jerusalem, which recently enjoyed a high-profile West End revival. Teaming up once again with director Sam Mendes, and with the backing of Sonia Friedman Productions, The Hills of California has arrived in London with considerable fanfare – not to mention high expectations.

It’s an impressive new family drama. Set in Blackpool during the summer heatwave of 1976, we meet the Webb sisters in their home, Sea View, as their mother is upstairs dying from stomach cancer. Or, rather, we meet most of them – Jill (Helena Wilson), Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond) and Gloria (Leanne Best) spend much of the play waiting for their eldest sister Joan – wondering whether she will actually jet in from California to visit their dying mother and debating whether they should hang on for her.

During the play we see flashbacks to the young girls growing up and their domineering mother Veronica (Laura Donnelly) who is trying to fashion the four sisters into a girl group, performing at local music halls with a dream of reaching the London Palladium. We’re also introduced to a variety of men who enter the lives of these women, none of whom are painted in particularly flattering lights.

It’s gripping stuff – the play clocks in at three hours (with one interval and one pause) but it absolutely flies by. This is due to the quality of the dialogue and the acting performances – we spent almost the entire time on the edge of our seats, waiting to see what would happen next. We learned so much about the mysterious Joan over the first two acts that we were genuinely intrigued to see whether she would show up in the third, and what would happen if she did. We were also eager to gain further insights into the sisters’ pasts, to see what had led to the fractious relationships of the present day.

The Hills of California is a really interesting and captivating new play – the subject matter can be quite bleak at times, although this is balanced with plenty of darkly comedic moments. We’re not quite sure it scales the same incredible heights of Butterworth’s previous works, but it’s a great play nonetheless.

GAY TIMES gives The Hills of California – 4/5

More information can be found here.