Review: The Hills of California


by Mike Matthaiakis

The Hills of California” presents a glamorous yet introspective exploration of familial dynamics and the pervasive influence of the entertainment industry. Set against the backdrop of the mid-20th century, the play follows the journey of a mother and her four daughters as they navigate the complexities of trauma, abuse and personal relationships.

At the heart of the narrative is Joan, the youngest daughter, whose talent catches the eye of a prominent talent scout. As the family embarks on a quest for fame and success reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters driven by the mother’s unfulfilled life goals, the play delves into themes of ambition, repression, and the blurred lines between empowerment and exploitation.

Writer Jez Butterworth skillfully navigates the female-dominated landscape, shedding light on the predatory behavior of men while also addressing the nuances of female complicity in abuse—a bold and timely exploration. However, the play’s nearly three-hour runtime feels excessive, with pacing issues hindering the overall impact.

Butterworth’s dialogue, while imbued with his trademark wit and flair, at times feels overly scripted, detracting from the authenticity of the characters’ interactions. Despite these shortcomings, the climactic scenes showcase Butterworth at the height of his storytelling prowess, delving into the complexities of familial wounds and the enduring legacy of past generations. The play masterfully navigates through different emotions and that’s what makes it so relevant. It doesn’t feel fake. 

The cast delivers performances marked by equanimity, infusing the play with depth and emotional resonance. However, it’s the final half-hour where “The Hills of California” truly shines, weaving together themes of resilience, forgiveness, and the cyclical nature of trauma with poignant clarity.

Mendes’ direction is superb. He expertly exploits every inch of Rob Howell’s impressive set to fully immerse everyone into the story. Every act is carefully directed to set the correct tone and it’s obvious that Mendes worked considerably with his cast to make sure that the relationships formed on stage feel genuine.

While the play may not reach the lofty heights of Butterworth’s acclaimed works like “Jerusalem,” it remains a smart and ambitious piece of theater that offers compelling insights into the human experience. Despite its uphill journey, “The Hills of California” ultimately delivers a satisfying and thought-provoking theatrical experience.

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