What forms our life chances?

“Have you heard of Elvis Presley? “

Luther St John.


Laura Donnelly as Veronica, Nicola Turner as Gillian, Nancy Allsop as Gloria, Lara McDonnell asJoan and Sophie Ally as Ruby (Photo: Mark Douet)

This much anticipated play by Jez Butterworth, directed by Sam Mendes opens not at the Royal Court as did Jerusalem and The Ferryman, but at the Harold Pinter.  It is the tale of a family of four girls in the 1970s who assemble in Brighton in the family guesthouse for the death of their mother Veronica. 

The play opens with Jill (Helena Wilson) the plain daughter who has stayed at home and is now caring for their mother, and the visiting district nurse, Penny (Natasha Magigi) who suggests doctors to relieve the pain of dying Veronica.  Jill has summoned her sisters to bid farewell to their mother.

The guesthouse is not in California but Blackpool and its various changes of name over the years  from Hotel to Boarding House, all had “Seaview” in them, although the Irish Sea is not visible from any window being in a side road.  “The Hills of California” is a reference to the 1948 song by Johnny Mercer which portrays California as a kind of Utopia.  The inappropriate Seaview name is our first indication of the fantasies and deep placed untruths associated with this house.  The second is the number of places Veronica claims the father of the girls died, in a ship torpedoed, in the desert at Alamein and at D day.

Laura Donnelly as Veronica and Lara McDonnell as Joan. (Photo: Mark Douet)

Rob Howell’s wonderful set has four flights of staircase right up to the flies.  At ground level there is a shabby Tiki bar covered in a straw roof and cane chairs, hanging lights with shades made of straw, a broken down juke box and an old piano.  Upstairs the guestrooms have been named after American states in Veronica’s American fantasy.  Alaska is at the very top.

Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond) arrives with husband Dennis (Bryan Dick), and Gloria (Leanne Best) with her two teenage children and husband Bill (Shaun Dooley).  Gloria is resentful and complaining, revealing her mother’s alcoholism and Ruby has panic attacks, which her sisters soothe by singing.  Jill refuses to make any decisions about her mother until Joan arrives.  Each of these characters is beautifully written and played giving depth to the production.

Nicola Turner as Gillian, Nancy Allsop as Gloria, Lara McDonnell asJoan and Sophie Ally as Ruby (Photo: Mark Douet)

The set revolves and we find ourselves back twenty odd years to where Veronica is transferring her own ambition to her daughters’ singing group, like the Andrews Sisters.  It is almost impossible to write anymore about the storyline as spoilers would be inevitable but Veronica will secure an audition with a top American agent for the girls.  They sing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” in pink fringed uniforms. 

From that point, Veronica makes a choice and the ultimate result is that Joan will go to America.  At the interval, back in the 1970s, the audience is asking whether Joan will arrive in time to see her mother alive.  In talking to Jill, Gloria will express her resentment of her mother’s favourite daughter and her twenty year absence and singing success in America with no contact like Christmas cards and birthday cards.


Helena Wilson as Jill foreground and Olivia Lovibond as Ruby (Photo: Mark Douet)

The Hills of California  will have you examining the rights and wrong of the family dynamics in the 1950s with the experience of knowing the consequences.  This three hour production is skilfully directed by Mendes and the complex outcomes for the four girls are satisfying. 

The mythology which Butterworth so often writes about, here is about the dream of showbusiness success and our historical perception from today’s viewpoint of the actions and the outcomes.  The acting, especially from Laura Donnelly, is stellar.

It is very early in the year to be talking about Play of the Year but surely The Hills of California has to be a contender and gets five stars from Theatrevibe, the theatre site that doesn’t give stars.

Laura Donnelly as Veronica Webb. (Photo: Mark Douet)

Production Notes

The Hills of California

Written  by Jez Butterworth

Directed by Sam Mendes



Angela Phinnimore

Bryan Dick

Corey Johnson

Georgina Hellier

Helena Wilson

Jasmyn Bank

Laura Donnelly

Leanne Best

Nancy Allsop

Natasha Magigi

Nicola Turner

Ophelia Lovibond

Richard Lumsden

Shaun Dooley

Stevie Raine

Will Barratt

Sophia Ally

Lucy Moran

Lara McDonnell

Alfie Jackson

Jessica Elisa Boyd

Monica Faldes

William Lawler


Director:  Sam Mendes

Designer: Rob Howell

Lighting Designer: Natasha Chivers

Sound Designer: Nick Powell

Musical Supervisor: Candida Caldecott

Choreographer: Ellen Kane


Running Time: Three hours including an interval and a pause

Booking to 15th June 2024


Harold Pinter

Panton Street

London SW1Y 4SW

Tube : Piccadilly Circus

Telephone: 03330 096 690

Website: haroldpintertheatre.co.uk

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Harold Pinter Theatre

on 8th February 2024