Home Estate Planning The Hills of California review: Can it live up to Jerusalem?

The Hills of California review: Can it live up to Jerusalem?

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The Hills of California takes place not in the hills of California but the backstreets of Blackpool. It’s set in the Sea View hotel, a sad, crumbling place that has no view of the sea. As you may already be gathering, the latest work from Jez Butterworth, the playwright behind blockbuster works including Jerusalem and The Ferryman, is concerned with what happens in the space between expectation and reality, and how one can be a curse upon the other.

It revolves around the four Webb sisters – Ruby, Gloria, Jill and Joan, the latter conspicuous by her absence – and their dying mother Veronica. The first act is a kind of kitchen sink drama that sees the working class sisters ruminate on love and loss, each one dissatisfied with their lot, barrelling towards middle age with varying degrees of righteous indignation.

There’s a subtle magnificence to the set, the sisters necking gin and enjoying sneaky cigs beneath the skeletons of stairs that loom at improbable angles like an MC Escher sketch.

Set during the sticky, stifling heat of the record-breaking drought of 1976, we’re drip-fed small mysteries: will the absent sister return? What made her leave? What happened to their father?

After the first act, the stage unexpectedly rotates, carrying away the sad tiki bar and chintzy juke box to reveal a 1950s kitchen containing the sisters – all four of them – as children. We learn that they were trained, fairly relentlessly, by their mother to perform song and dance numbers in the style of the Andrews Sisters. Living vicariously through her offspring, Veronica has placed every one of her eggs in this precarious basket, desperate to see them succeed.

There’s a quiet tragedy to the way the story plays out; a series of dreams turning to ash, compromises being made, talents going to waste. It’s imperiously acted by the four women (the only male characters are essentially court jesters, existing for light relief), each of whom feels fleshed out and crushingly human.

Butterworth has been dealt a slightly unfortunate hand with The Hills of California coming so soon after Jerusalem’s blockbuster revival. In the decade since it was first staged, that play has taken on an almost mythical quality, with some calling it the greatest work of the 21st century.

The Hills of California can’t live up to that kind of hype. It’s more precise, less flowing and impressionistic, more akin to The Ferryman in tone and pace. That doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent piece of work, however. Through these sisters in this fading seaside town, Butterworth explores another facet to that slippery concept of Britishness: how we see ourselves, and perhaps how we really are.

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