Reviews Roundup: The Hills Of California 3.8★

Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Laura Donnelly and Lara McDonnell in The Hills of California. Photo: Mark Douet

After his huge successes with Jerusalem and The Ferryman, there are inevitably high hopes for a new play by Jez Butterworth, especially with Sam Mendes, who directed The Ferryman, at the helm. If The Hills Of California didn’t quite live up to those expectations for the majority of the critics, it nevertheless garnered reviews most playwrights and producers would be more than happy with. Far from the West Coast of the USA, the story is set in a guest house in Blackpool. Four daughters assemble around their dying mother back in the long, hot summer of 1976. Grief and rivalry infuse the siblings’ relationships.  The drama swings between that time and their youth when their mother was grooming them to be another Andrews Sisters. For many of the critics, it was a fine play but too slow. The ending provided an unsatisfactory denouement for quite a few of them, although, for the Telegraph, it ‘worked like a dream’.

The only heavyweight critic to give a five star review was Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (5★) who said: ‘The playwright catches again the quality of a time and place and its significance as metaphor… (but) what makes his plays is something more elusive: an ability to bend and stretch time, to show how the past can inhabit the present, how the myths we inherit and those we invent shape our experience of reality.’ She called it a ‘rich, funny, brilliantly layered drama about lost dreams, trampled hopes, parenting and letting go.’ and praised the way ‘Sam Mendes’ beautifully paced production surfs time, place and mood and is gloriously acted.’

The Radio Times (4★) reviewer Olivia Garrett said that, following their collaboration on The Ferryman, Butterworth and Mendes ‘have once again brought us a gorgeously textured performance that drifts across time and tone – going from nostalgic wry humour in one moment to brutal unprocessed emotion in the next.’ ‘Overall, The Hills of California is a strong and deftly handled exploration of death and bereavement with the potential to resonate with anyone,’ she summed up. Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out (4★) felt it ‘clears the bar’ set by Jerusalem: ‘Butterworth writes – and Mendes directs – with a deft, novelistic fluidity.’ However, the climax lets it down, he said, declaring that it ends in a ‘stumble’.’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,’ he explained. However, ‘The performances are uniformly tremendous.’

‘Butterworth is ingenious about the way fantasy traps and inspires,’ said Susannah Clapp in The Observer (4★). She found ‘Sam Mendes’s production is motored by fine acting’. Aliya Al-Hassan at Broadway World (4★) called it a ‘bittersweet and bitingly funny new play’. It is, she said, ‘close to greatness. It is thought-provoking, heartbreaking and multi-layered, but it could be exceptional.’

Sarah Crompton at Whats On Stage (4★) found it ‘a slow smoulder rather than a fierce blaze, shooting off thought-provoking sparks without ever fully illuminating its themes. I had the odd sense of the playwright standing outside his creation, straining every sinew to make it come to life, willing it to succeed.’ Like a number of reviewers, she brings attention to ‘Laura Donnelly’s charismatic, chiselled performance’.

For Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph (4★) ‘It’s smart, ambitious fare, no question, the cast serve it with aplomb, and the final half-hour works like a dream. But, even so, it’s an uphill slog to get there, and we’re some distance from the hallowed triumph of Jerusalem.’ He decided it ‘needs a trim and a less languid pace’. Fiona Mountford for the i (4★) had the same thought: ‘Butterworth’s writing is resonant but proceeds at far too languid a pace’. She had a further reservation: ‘I remain unconvinced by the pivotal plot moment and the explanations, or lack thereof.’ Yet, ‘Despite the play’s flaws, the West End is infinitely the richer for its presence.’

Nick Curtis in The Standard (4★), decided (very precisely) that it was ‘nine-tenths of a superb’ play. He said: ‘this is a witty, closely observed study of family relations and of the cycle of birth and death, impeccably performed by both young and older cast members and expertly conducted by Mendes: even the singing is impressive.’ His conclusion is that The Hills of California is ‘on a par with Butterworth’s Jerusalem and The Ferryman – a trio of flawed masterpieces.’

The ‘flawed masterpiece’ theme was also to be found in Stefan Kyriazis’ review in The Express (4★): ‘a slightly flawed Butterworth performed by artists of this calibre is still worth ten of so many other shows out there.’ Part of his reservation came from his frustration with the climax: ‘the pacing is off, and the script falters frustratingly in the strangely sentimental final scene.’ On the plus side, he called it a ‘gloriously written tragicomedy’, saying ‘Nobody writes percussive dialogue like Butterworth. Hilarious grenades laced with affection or fury pepper over pathos and pain, mirth and melancholy. Colloquial rhythms ring so true you can taste the time and place.’

Clive Davis in The Times (3★) was another critic who didn’t like the ending, calling it ‘a muddled and wildly implausible final act’. Neverthless, he  thought it ‘comes tantalisingly close to sweeping us off our feet.’ ‘Laura Donnelly’s hypnotic central performance…will certainly linger in the memory,’ he said, but ‘director Sam Mendes hasn’t been able to impose enough discipline on Butterworth’s penchant for baggy, poetic speeches.’ The Guardian’s (3★) Arifa Akbar also used the ‘b’ word: ‘an uneven drama, baggy in its pacing’. Cuttingly, she concluded: ‘Rob Howell’s gorgeous set, dominated by a beautiful staircase, has heights and depths that the play itself does not reach.’

‘Director Sam Mendes’s production brings out all the gentle humour in Butterworth’s play’ said Alice Saville in The Independent (3★) but there’s a ‘lack of an intellectual underpinning (that) feels more visible in a play that lacks the pace and tautness of Butterworth’s writing at its best.’ She asks: ‘is there gold in them thar hills?’  Her answer: ‘Not this time, alas.’

Average critic rating (out of 5) 3.8★

Value rating  39 (Value rating is achieved by dividing the Average critic rating by the most common ticket price in the Stalls and Circle. In theory this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is further complicated by theatres raising or lowering the prices during the run depending on sales.)

‘The Hills of California’ can be seen at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 15 June 2024. Click here to buy direct

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