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Theatre Review Mother trouble

The relationship between an over-ambitious mother and her damaged daughters makes for a muddled evening of drama, finds MARY CONWAY

The Hills of California
Harold Pinter Theatre

DISAPPOINTMENT is sadly the biggest takeaway from Jez Butterworth’s new play at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Set in Blackpool in 1976 – with flashbacks to the late 1950s – the story is of four sisters congregating at their old family guesthouse to mark the approaching death of their mother Veronica, who grimly suffers in an upstairs bedroom. One sister Jill (Helena Wilson) still lives with her mother; two others Ruby and Gloria (Ophelia Lovibond and Leanne Best) arrive with bitter tales of the effort it’s cost them to get there; and Joan – well – will she bother to come at all? And thereby hangs the tale.

Blackpool is famed for its promise of seaside pleasure for ordinary people. It also represents a kind of tackiness and impoverished aspiration that is represented in the play. The guest house, for instance, is called Seaview. That it has no sea view is indicative of the gap between dreams and reality as witnessed in this place, and by Veronica who, in her younger days, mercilessly drills her teenage daughters to become a song and dance troupe in the vein of the Andrews Sisters.  

When a big American agent happens by, Veronica’s monstrous nature becomes the central theme of the play. Until then, we don’t know what we’re watching. Love in the early scenes is so spectacularly absent from the dying mother’s care that we don’t know how to empathise. And, when the hot topic of euthanasia is immediately raised, we wonder if this will be the moral debate of the evening but no, it’s just a red herring. 

Then, as we meander from Blackpool-style jokes and man-hating witticisms to frenzied outbursts and full-blown musical interludes, the true nature of the play eludes us until the focus on Joan intensifies.
 
No expense has been spared on the production, though. Rob Howell’s crazed, revolving set raises the game with its frantic period detail, its central staircase reaching ominously to upper rooms that house not only a dying woman but terrible truths as well. Named after US states, the unseen bedrooms exist conceptually in the rafters, rather as unrealised dreams haunt Veronica and untold hurts and terrors plague her girls. 

Sam Mendes directs with his customary panache and the cast faultlessly deliver performances of style and quality, Laura Donnelly excels as Veronica and later as the grown-up Joan, while the four girls who play younger versions of the daughters (Nancy Allsop, Nicola Turner, Sophia Ally and Lara Mcdonnell) light up the stage.  

But, somehow, it’s a muddle.

We often ask of a playwright’s new work: why this? why now? Here there is no clear answer. Instead, personal family history and possible self-indulgence seem to motivate Butterworth who so rightly took the world by storm with Jerusalem and The Ferryman. 

There are some great jokes. The spirited musical turns bring pleasure. There’s passion, quirky lines and boldness. 

But in the end, this is a creaky tale where incomplete characters and an ultimately shadowy Blackpool bring little enlightenment, albeit with original intent.     

Runs until June 15. Box office: 020 7206 1174, haroldpintertheatre.co.uk 

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