The Hills of California review: A masterclass in grief
Straight from the minds of Jez Butterworth and Sam Mendes, this play brings draught, dry humour, and devastating loss right to the heart of the West End.
If you’ve ever lost a loved one, or worse, sat around with your family while waiting for said loved one to pass away, then you’ll feel a particular poignance when watching The Hills of California; A play that taps right into the heart of the grieving process and gives you raw, unabashed truths about how families treat one another.
This new addition to the West End is a reunion for playwright Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) and director Sam Mendes (The Lehman Trilogy) who last worked on the Tony and Olivier award-winning show, The Ferryman. Together, the duo 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.
Set in Blackpool 1976, the story follows three sisters: Jill, Ruby and Gloria who come together during the worst draught in over 200 years to be with their dying mother. In the public parlour of their mother’s run-down guest house, Seaview (where there’s no view of the sea), the trio undergo the agonising wait for the end, all the while wondering if there’ll be a surprise reappearance from their oldest sister Joan.
But just when you think you’ve got the measure of the play, and fear that its mammoth three-hour run time will mainly be spent on funeral discussions and Choc-Ice jokes, the show travels back to 20 years earlier, when the Webb sisters were growing up at Seaview.
Once this flashback takes place, the show really starts to take off. The straddling of the two timelines gives us so much more context, allowing us to see the dreams the girls once had and why they were lost, all the while moving us inexorably closer to the truth of why Joan left, which, when revealed, hits you like a sucker punch to the gut.
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The scenes in the past also give us one of the best performances in the show: Laura Donnelly as the girls’ mother Veronica. We’ve seen plenty of movies, TV shows and plays where a dying character is just a faceless figure who we listen to endless stories about. But actually getting to see her as a proud, ambitious woman who wanted the world for her daughters is so much better and allows us to understand exactly what’s being lost.
However, huge credit also needs to be given to all three of the older Webb sisters – Leanne Best (Gloria), Ophelia Lovibond (Ruby), and Helena Wilson (Jill). Without their earthy behaviours and natural chemistry with each other, the show just wouldn’t work. Plus, they’re an absolute masterclass in the different ways people can experience grief, with Gloria determined to stay angry and realistic, Ruby in constant distraction and denial, and Jill reminiscent and optimistic.
The play also has a series of unexpected musical moments which, rather than veering too close to the realm of Billy Elliot, really lifts the storytelling to new emotional heights and allows the cast to show off a wealth of talent.
Are there moments when the runtime is felt? Yes. But in the end, this doesn’t matter one bit, as the blend of levity, heartbreak and sisterly bonds is enough to keep you sucked in. Overall, the Hills of California is a strong and deftly handled exploration of death and bereavement with the potential to resonate with anyone.
When and where can I see The Hills of California?
The Hills of California is running at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 15th June 2024.
The shows take place every day except Sunday, with two shows on Saturdays. They will also be running a captioned performance on 23rd April, an audio described performance on 11th May, and a signed performance on 16th May.
The Harold Pinter theatre sits just off of Haymarket, a short walk from Piccadilly Circus. To get there, you can take the Piccadilly or Bakerloo line to Piccadilly Circus, or head to Charing Cross via the Bakerloo, Northern Line, or Southeastern Rail.
How much do The Hills of California tickets cost?
Tickets start at just £15 for seats in the Balcony, although these are always the first to go, so the next best price is £25. If you want a spot in the Royal Circle you’re looking at paying £37-£62 and for the Grand Circle, it’s up to £105. Lastly, for the Stalls tickets cost between £47 and £144.50.
How to get tickets to The Hills of California
Tickets are on sale now at ATG Tickets. Remember that performances will only run until 15th June, so you better be quick if you want to get a spot.
Plus, we've put together a series of theatre guides so check out what's on at the Harold Pinter Theatre.