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Review of The Hills of California at Harold Pinter Theatre: Butterworth delivers another masterpiece

Rated 🍯🍯🍯🍯🍯


Production image of Laura Donnelly in The Hills of California, Harold Pinter Theatre. Photo credit: Mark Douet
Production image of Laura Donnelly in The Hills of California, Harold Pinter Theatre. Photo credit: Mark Douet

A layered family drama set in the scorching summer of 1976 in Blackpool,” The Hills of California," plunges into the depths of familial ties and the echoes of past decisions. Directed by Sam Mendes, this narrative unwinds in a quaint, misleadingly named guesthouse, "Sea View," where the Webb sisters reunite in the looming shadow of their mother's mortality. The mother Veronica Webb is dying of stomach cancer. The essence of the play revolves around the stark contrasts and complex personalities of the Webb sisters—each character a distinct note in the harmonious and discordant symphony that is their shared history.


A Scorching Summer of Secrets

The typical portrayal of the 1976 British heatwave involves crowded beaches and stressed infrastructure, but the bee’s impressions of the opening scene of the play was much more tranquil. Whether this was a conscious narrative technique or an observation generated by the bee’s own subjectivity, the bee does not know, but this serene setting, at least for the bee, did create a stark contrast with the sisters' internal turmoil and the decay within their family home.


Unpacking the Webb Sisters

The play opens with Jill, the youngest of the four sisters and the stay-at-home daughter who is grappling with the weighty decision concerning her mother's end-of-life care. Jill was introduced as a rather plain character, at least in the beginning. She was dressed plainly and shown to be busying herself with pointless endeavours like cleaning out the attic and gathering old trinkets and memories. On the one hand, her antics reflected a very human need for busying oneself with the mundane to escape from the clutches of death, grief and suffering just lurking in the corner. It did not escape anybody's notice that this woman has been alone a long time, both physically and metaphorically. But on the other hand, it felt like a way to immerse herself in the very same memories that she was trying to let go of, as one often does - the only way out is to go all the way in first. 


Jill’s smoking in stealth and her compulsive need to lie about it to the nurse revealed to the bee a character who was rather uncomfortable in her own skin, as though living under her mother's shadow had made her as meek as her mother was bold and as lacking in assertiveness as Joan was brimming with it, and as though by her own choice or by circumstance she was forced into a cloistered upbringing and adulthood that had robbed her of her potential to toughen up or embrace and display her own imperfections with fearless aplomb as her sisters did. Saddled with responsibilities but also defined by the same responsibilities, Jill seemed to lack the kind of significant and dramatic life experiences that the others had had and that had matured them (and possibly stripped them a bit of the unconditional love and niceness to everyone that Jill seemed to exude). 


[Spoiler warning] Gloria is portrayed as blunt and pragmatic, traits that often set her apart from her siblings in critical ways. Gloria was the most outspoken one about Joan's absence. She was angriest about the fact that Jill hadn't yet called the doctor to put Veronica to rest. She was also the most vocal about the heat. The bee wonders whether these kinds of outbursts are used to cloak an inner turmoil, to give voice to them. Her black-and-white thinking might simplify decisions for her, providing a sense of control in a chaotic environment, but it also likely puts her at odds with her sisters, particularly Jill, whose approach is more nuanced and morally conflicted. Her fear, pain, and frustration find a vent through anger and impatience, even as Gloria seems to embody the role of a catalyst in the family dynamics, pushing the narrative forward by challenging the hesitations and moral ambiguities of her siblings.


Butterworth’s development of these characters is both deep and vague at the same time. This kind of character development, where early life is vaguely defined, allows the audience to fill in the blanks with their interpretations or focus more on the character's present challenges and how they handle them. It might suggest that their past is not as critical to their current narrative, or it could point to an underlying theme of transformation and the impact of familial expectations and responsibilities on personal growth.


The Matriarch and the Prodigal Daughter


[More spoilers] Then there’s Veronica, her forceful personality being living proof of a notion that the bee has long harboured: People who're ordinary make only ordinary mistakes. It's extraordinary people who're capable of the catastrophes. Veronica Webb was built up as an unassailable, nearly infallible mother. She was stern with her children but not enough to the point of repressing their creativity or stifling individual expression, as the young girls seemed happy, talented, carefree and simultaneously daring, defiant and assertive. The bee found her to be an impressive mother, perhaps a little too impressive that at one point it felt like a foregone conclusion that this woman’s virtues would inextricably lead to her failings, although it took a while to uncover what that failing was. Extraordinary people are the ones saddled with the greatest mistakes and regrets.


Joan's character, like those of her sisters, seems to embody a mix of defiance, independence, and perhaps a hint of estrangement from the family norms shaped by Veronica. Her life in America and the significant choices she makes or is expected to make can be seen as symbolic of broader themes in the play, such as the escape from and eventual confrontation with one's past. Joan's quiet demeanour and apparent detachment felt somewhat frustrating, with Gloria perhaps seeking a more dramatic confrontation, but this only adds a layer of realism to the family drama. It shows the varied ways individuals deal with pain and conflict: some with outward aggression and others with internalized acceptance. [End of spoilers]


Impressions

However, the play might not sit well with everyone. Its third act, arguably less taut than its predecessors, might test the patience of those craving a more conventional resolution. The subtlety of its character explorations could also frustrate viewers seeking more explicit narrative progression or those uninterested in the introspective pacing of family dramas. 


In sum, "The Hills of California" is a testament to the power of theatre to probe the deepest corners of human relationships. It is a play for those drawn to stories of familial complexity, poised between the past’s shadows and the stark light of present-day truths. For some, its rich texture will be a treasure trove of psychological insight; for others, the play's lingering questions and moral ambiguities might prove an insurmountable barrier. The bee belongs to the former category.


Five stars!


 

Watched April 2024 at Harold Pinter Theatre, London.


Tip: Stalls seat P-17 is a great bargain as it is labelled as obstructed view but the obstructing pillar obscures only a tiny chunk of the right edge of the stage. The bee barely noticed it.

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