The Hills of California review – Harold Pinter Theatre, London ★★★★☆

Laura Donnelly & (L-R) Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell, Sophia Ally. Photo by Mark Douet

Jez Butterworth’s The Hills of California, directed by Sam Mendes, is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated openings of the year, following on from the return of his 2009 work, ‘Play of the Century’ Jerusalem, last year and 2017’s equally accomplished, if not better, The Ferryman. Those epic offerings are now the benchmark through which Butterworth’s work is judged rightly or wrongly – the bar is raised; we expect more.

Though it may be wrong to make comparisons with his earlier work, it’s easy to do so – particularly with The Ferryman. His partner Laura Donnelly appears in a leading role, though this time the play’s story finds its inspiration in his family and not hers; both could be categorised as kitchen sink dramas, even if that undersells its scale; and both contain family secrets buried for years, ready to crash out into the open.

We are in Blackpool in 1976 and the four Webb sisters have gathered for the first time in years as the family Matriarch lies on her deathbed in the misnomered family home and former guest house, Seaview. Or at least they would have if the eldest Joan would bother to show up as promised. These exchanges play out alongside scenes from twenty years earlier when the sisters were in their youth, and their single mother Veronica (Laura Donnelly) still held power over them.

Seaview, as it is in 1976, or The Seaview Luxury Guest House and Spa as it was in 1955, is superbly created by Rob Howell with its staircases that tower over the stage, disappearing into the rafters as they ascend towards the upper floors of the house.

Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell, Sophia Ally. Photo by Mark Douet

There is a near cinematic quality to Mendes’ direction. In one scene a visitor to the home watches the young sisters perform – part way through he begins to tap his foot, Veronica glances at it a moment, then at his face before finally returning her fierce gaze to her daughters as the foot taps on. Mendes forces you to watch it all as if in film: you close in on the foot, pan to the held gaze and note the glance upwards before the head turn diverts your attention back to the girls performing.

The acting is uniformly excellent; Leanne Best is perfectly insufferable as the bitter Gloria and Ophelia Lovibond brings a lightness of being to the dreamer, Ruby, who, having accepted her lot in life, is living vicariously through her ideas of Joan. Helena Wilson has a tougher job with the two-dimensional Jill, who has cared for their mother as the others dispersed, but she brings the librarian-like sister to life. The male actors find themselves sidelined but Shaun Dooley and Bryan Dick deliver strong performances.

The evening, though, belongs to Donnelly – who delivers a star turn as the domineering Veronica who rules both her children and the Seaview Luxury Guest House and Spa with an iron fist. There are shades of Prunella Scales’ Sybil Fawlty, Kenneth Williams and, dare I say it, Alan Partridge, within her posh intonations as she seeks to elevate herself and her daughters above their current status. She plays a dual role with equal aplomb – but I won’t reveal too much.

Laura Donnelly and Lara McDonnell. Photo by Mark Douet

By the end of act two, you feel Butterworth is close to another monumental hit, but he fumbles the third act in his quest for the kind of statement ending that The Ferryman and Jerusalem finished on, and the use of a deus ex machina leaves us with a twist that feels confused. And it is not just the ending that feels like it is over-egging the gravitas – there is an overuse of atmospheric music as a shortcut to grandeur at points.

If this were not Butterworth, critics would be singing about The Hills of California from the rooftops, ignoring its flaws. Make no doubt about it: this is an excellent play driven by excellent performances – it deserves to be one of the hottest tickets in town.

With six of Butterworth’s seven plays having opened at the currently beleaguered home of new writing, the Royal Court – where the literary department is reportedly undergoing a voluntary redundancy consultation with staff – it feels like something of a shame that the play has gone straight to the West End. It’s understandable given the status of both Butterworth and Mednes, but it’s still disappointing. Still, that’s a different topic.

The Hills of California is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 15 June