Jeremy Malies in the West End
10 February 2024
Write Jerusalem – which many people consider to be the best play of the present century – and you’re going to struggle for an encore even with other outstanding work such as The Ferryman in 2017 to your name.
The sisters as their younger selves.
Photo credit: Mark Douet.
Jez Butterworth’s new play The Hills of California features many young characters, a set piece involving an adolescent girl’s unaccompanied voice, and a “tempus fugit” section. Those are the similarities I could see with Jerusalem. But this show rarely scales such heights. It fitfully takes wing only to become grounded by a creaky structure, one implausible character, and a third act that could usefully be trimmed.
It’s 1976 and the UK is in the grip of the hottest summer since 1844. The setting is the lounge bar of the Seaview Hotel, Blackpool, a large but shabby guest house. The visitors are broiling and tourists on the prom are “slavering like whippets”. Rob Howell’s design towers upwards showing the hotel’s landings and numerous rooms, all illuminated by standard lamps (lighting by Natasha Chivers) and named after American states. A “Mr and Mrs Smith” scurry upwards for a guilty act of congress in “Mississippi” which becomes a code word for sex both consensual and forced.
Three out of four daughters have arrived. The Webb sisters are gathering for the death of their unseen mother, Veronica, who 20 years earlier had groomed them to be the next Andrews Sisters. The wonderfully vulgar Gloria (Leanne Best) who is the second oldest tells us that, even with the heat of the day receding, she has “sweated clean through her slacks”. All she craves is that her husband Joe (Richard Lumsden) will give her some respite from his woeful impressions and funny voices. A nurse (Natasha Magigi) is arranging for a doctor to ease Veronica out of pain and into the next world with some morphine.
As with all of Butterworth’s plays, there are good gags such as the women’s recollections of a cross-eyed but otherwise charismatic lothario whose conquests could never be quite sure who he was leering at. The girls are of uncertain parentage, and we learn that their father died during the Second World War at El Alamein or on D-Day or at a POW camp in Jerez or on HMS Albrighton. But the humour is not as frequent as Jerusalem and not all of it lands. There are laboured running gags about the evolution of the guest house’s name and the fact that none of the views involve so much as a sliver of the Irish Sea.
There is a coup de théâtre at the start of the second act and I thought of J.B. Priestley’s time plays. Howell’s set (it is to an extent the star of the show) swivels. Suddenly, we see the women as their teenaged selves circa 1958 with Joan now alongside her sisters. The scene is the hotel kitchen parlour with Veronica (played by Laura Donnelly) as an alpha female disciplining her brood and striking terror into seedy lodgers including a Max Miller type played by Bryan Dick who is living on extravagant hopes and tick. The comedian’s supposed ace card is that he is about to get the girls an audition with Max Bygraves’s agent.
Laura Donnelly as Veronica.
Photo credit: Mark Douet.
A highlight for me is realizing how the younger performers have settled on traits in the older women and are now showing these in nascent form. It’s observational acting of the highest order.
We progress to Perry Como’s agent, Luther, played by Corey Johnson. He actually appears and is involved in a fulcrum of the plot that is best kept under wraps. The girls perform for him, and sound designer Nick Powell (who has a broad musical remit here) achieves something precise. He calibrates the girls’ Andrews Sisters audition piece such that it is competent but a tad stiff and not truly inspired. Underwhelmed Luther might represent Como, but he can see where popular music is heading. “Have you heard of Elvis Presley?” he asks Veronica. “No, what’s that?” Luther asks to listen to Joan alone and in a better acoustic. With no accompaniment, Lara McDonnell, hits the top notes of “When I Fall in Love” effortlessly.
Director Sam Mendes (perhaps with Butterworth) has the brilliant idea of having the 1976 third act in which the older versions of the women reappear played out not in the hotel bar but on the 1950s kitchen parlour set. It’s a way of suggesting that the sisters are investigating (or are haunted by) their pasts. The older Joan (Donnelly multi-roles) plays piano, and the women sing in the style of their younger selves remembering the technical problems they had as their voices matured. This is an exquisite highpoint, and I can’t have been the only one to become a little moist and croaky.
Ophelia Lovibond excels as Ruby, the second youngest sister (in the 1976 setting) who is perhaps the best-drawn character. She is in a joyless relationship with cheesecloth-wearing Dennis (Bryan Dick as multiple characters), her previous experience of men being that partners become so bored they go mad thus allowing her to move on. But she tells Gloria that her husband Bill (Shaun Dooley) has become a fixture because he is too dull even to lose his wits. Lovibond’s gingham knot shirt and bell bottom jeans (costumes by Lucy Gaiger) could not sum up the period better.
Ophelia Lovibond as Ruby.
Photo credit: Mark Douet.
It’s a wonder to me how Mendes did not lean on Butterworth to make the third act shorter. Joan dominates this portion of the play. She has emigrated to the US, become part of the Haight-Ashbury set, cut a few records, and tells the family (possibly as a fib) that she has met the two surviving Andrews sisters. Donnelly is fantastic as Veronica but was I alone in finding her drawled American accent as the older Joan excruciating? The character also struck me as illogical and far-fetched.
It was easy to slide into the period and I can’t readily remember such closely observed set components. Props manager Lisa Buckley lavishes care on everything from KP peanuts point-of-sale material to a thermos flask or the board games in the hotel bar. A jukebox is serviced without success but then springs into life on its own in order to play “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones. But Chivers’s lighting could do more to suggest the heat outside even at night.
The title? It’s a Johnny Mercer song that the girls perform. But musically this is all about the Andrews Sisters and there are many parallels, with the Webbs enduring a similarly hardscrabble upbringing. Audience members sang snatches from the numbers (some managing close harmony) as they walked up to Piccadilly. The sisters won’t have been so popular here since they headlined at the London Palladium in 1951. I felt an anhedonic Eeyore not to be swept along.
The Ferryman is likely to have a long shelf life by virtue of its treatment of Irish political history. Jerusalem is folkloric and only loosely anchored in time. The characters here discuss the nature of memory a lot, and yet this is not really a memory. We are present with them in 1976 but there is no further perspective after that. I worry that The Hills of California may prove a period piece with no lasting resonance.