Tag Archives: Jez Butterworth



Harold Pinter Theatre

THE HILLS OF CALIFORNIA at the Harold Pinter Theatre


“It is, overall, a sharp-witted observation of life. And of death. And the precarious hold we have of memories that lie between.”

Jez Butterworth’s highly anticipated new play, “The Hills of California” is a wondrously slow-burning affair that raises the question, among others, of explaining why people are what they are. As the layers are gradually peeled back the prize at the heart condenses, but it is the twists and turns of the lead-up that keep us in thrall. Despite running at just over three hours, Butterworth seems to have chosen every word with a mosaic artist’s care.

It is the sweltering summer of 1976, and we are in the cluttered parlour of a Blackpool guesthouse, where the cracked piano is off-key. “Through neglect and time” according to the piano tuner – the first (one of many) metaphor that applies to each character. Three sisters are reuniting during the dying moments of their mother who is lying in bed, unseen, upstairs. A fourth sister’s presence is uneasily promised, though not expected. Jill (Helena Wilson) is already on the scene. She still lives with her mother, caring for her, nervously spraying air-freshener to stop her cigarette smoke drifting up the stairs towards her. Enter feisty, witty, no-nonsense Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond) lugging her panic attacks and slapping them down on the table. Then Gloria (Leanne Best), bitter and blunt, sagging under the weight of chips on her shoulder. The dynamic is quickly established as sibling rivalries and affections simmer away, while unreliable memories stew.

We are transported back to the source of their memories. To the 1950s when the dreams were still flourishing, the guesthouse breathed with life, and their mother, Veronica (Laura Donnelly), ruled the roost with a regimental and fierce ambition for her daughters. Determined to see them become the next ‘Andrews Sisters’ she is remorseless in her control over them. Donnelly gives a star turn performance, mistakenly believing her steely command is maternal care, unaware of the damage she is causing. When a predatory theatrical agent comes dangling a carrot, we witness the harsh, defining moment that severs the family, and the future scenes make sense.

Slipping back and forth between the fifties and the seventies is the plays major strength. Each decade sheds light on the other and we see how events shape our protagonists; and how memories of those events can cloud their perceptions of reality. The performances are superb across the board. And if the characters’ memories are off pitch, their singing voices are gorgeously harmonious, especially the younger cast who play the sisters as teenagers.

“Sam Mendes brings out the best of this company, directing like a conductor responding to the shifts of mood and time.”

As the questions tentatively find their answers, the bleakness is constantly relieved by the humour that runs through the writing. Comedy that is accentuated by the fine ensemble acting. Shaun Dooley and Bryan Dick are an astute double-act as Gloria and Ruby’s husbands respectively. Dick also doubles as the resident end-of-the-pier jokesmith, Jack Larkin, forever behind on the rent but upfront with loyalty and cringe-worthy quips. There is no cameo role, even if one or two characters appear transient. Each has their place.

Sam Mendes brings out the best of this company, directing like a conductor responding to the shifts of mood and time. There may be one or two movements that could be shortened – or even cut. But like taking out a single part within a harmony, it would leave the others out of kilter. There are many undulations in “The Hills of California”. We are aware of them up close. Stand back and we see the panoramic, yet intimate, view of a family picked apart skilfully by Butterworth.

The sense of disorientation is enhanced by Rob Howell’s impressive set. Homely yet disarranged, it sweeps upwards with its imposingly gothic staircases like a giant Escher woodcut. The sinister is never far away from the everyday. And the trivial minutiae are forever rubbing shoulders with universal truths.

It is, overall, a sharp-witted observation of life. And of death. And the precarious hold we have of memories that lie between. Like the piano – that becomes a central role in the piece – those relationships can go discordantly off-key – “through neglect and time” – as the piano tuner says. Before reminding us: “a piano must be played”.

THE HILLS OF CALIFORNIA at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Reviewed on 8th February 2024

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Mark Douet



Top rated shows in January 2024:

KIM’S CONVENIENCE | ★★★★ | Park Theatre | January 2024
COWBOIS | ★★★★★ | Royal Court Theatre | January 2024
EDGES | ★★★★ | Phoenix Arts Club | January 2024
AFTERGLOW | ★★★★ | Southwark Playhouse Borough | January 2024
RITA LYNN | ★★★★ | The Turbine Theatre | January 2024
LEAVES OF GLASS | ★★★★ | Park Theatre | January 2024
CRUEL INTENTIONS: THE 90s MUSICAL | ★★★★ | The Other Palace | January 2024
THE BEAUTIFUL FUTURE IS COMING | ★★★★ | Jermyn Street Theatre | January 2024



Click here to see our Recommended Shows page




Progress Theatre Reading



Progress Theatre

Reviewed – 8th February 2019



“Progress Theatre rose to the challenge and have brought us a formidable production”


Hidden amongst the houses of Reading is the self-funding theatre group, Progress Theatre. This small theatre is the oldest in Reading and their ambition in taking on Jerusalem is admirable. Directed here by John Goodman, Jez Butterworth’s play is a marathon at three hours long, with two intervals and a lot of swearing.

In walks Matt Tully as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and from the outset it is clear that the role is in safe hands. Shaking and hungover he downs his breakfast of vodka and milk. He is soon joined by a motley collective of the youth of Flintlock Village. It is St. George’s Day and the day of the Village Fair. As the morning progresses, the story of last night’s partying starts to come back to them all. Rooster has now been barred from every pub in the village and has destroyed his television set. It is apparent that Rooster’s caravan in the woods is a convenient meeting place for the youngsters. They are given drugs and alcohol and an escape from their parents. Rooster refers to them as his rats, but it is clear that he needs to surround himself with youth to remain young. They hang on his words, with the possible exception of Ginger (Joseph Morbey), who is happy to tell Rooster that his stories are “bollocks”. Morbey’s endearing take on Ginger proficiently leads us to understand the neediness of the character. He is the butt of the group’s jokes, but as it turns out, probably the only true friend that Rooster has. Although they appear to idolise Rooster, there is an undercurrent of mockery and a sense that they are using him for their convenience.

Laurence Maguire as Lee and Rex Rayner as Davey stand out as the guffawing village boys. Lee is planning an exodus to Australia, with its sun and surf, while Davey cannot leave Wiltshire without his ears popping. You get the feeling that although Lee wants to leave, he really won’t be able to. Alison Hill as the sweet and doddery Professor is charming and comedic. John Turner as Wesley, pub landlord, speed addict and Morris Dancer is also a stand out.

Tony Travis’ set design is truly remarkable. The stage’s centrepiece is Rooster’s caravan, Waterloo surrounded by the detritus of endless parties. I am in awe of the trickery involved in getting a whole caravan through the doors.

Jerusalem is a reflection of England’s green and pleasant land and also a sorrow of the takeover of housing estates and petty officialdom. We can empathise with those living with Rooster squatting on their doorstep, but it is hard not to root for him as we see him unravel with the realisation that his life as he knows it is coming to an end. Tully’s rambling monologues take us masterfully through Rooster’s nonchalance to authority and finally to self-destruction, when it becomes clear he does not know what to do. His tall tales of Nigerians and giants symbolises that something beyond his control is coming to take what he holds dear, away from him.

Jez Butterworth has taken ordinary characters that are recognisable from our own life stories and made them extraordinary. Progress Theatre rose to the challenge and have brought us a formidable production. I’ve already booked to see it again.

Reviewed by Emma Gradwell

Photography by Aidan Moran



Progress Theatre until 16th February


Previous shows covered by this reviewer:
Robin Hood | ★★★★ | Watermill Theatre Newbury | December 2018
Rocky Horror Show | ★★★★ | Theatre Royal Brighton | December 2018


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