Tag Archives: Ophelia Lovibond



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


The Bay at Nice

The Bay at Nice

Menier Chocolate Factory

The Bay at Nice

The Bay at Nice

Menier Chocolate Factory

Reviewed – 19th March 2019



“packed with enticing themes, but consistently presents them in ways that aren’t engaging”


Revivals always generate intrigue as to what the creative team has found within a usually decades-old script that will resonate in new ways for modern audiences. When the play is penned by prolific writer David Hare, and helmed by prolific director Sir Richard Eyre, then the intrigue is amped up considerably. You can imagine my disappointment, then, to have the left the theatre none the wiser as to why The Bay at Nice has received a revival at all.

Set in a disused room of an art museum in Leningrad in 1956, hardened and straight-talking Valentina Nrovka (Penelope Wilton) is ostensibly there to authenticate a Matisse painting, but when her docile daughter Sophia (Ophelia Lovibond) informs her that she’s planning to leave her stoic husband for a less successful man (Peter, played by David Rintoul), the ideologies of the pair collide in a clash of the personal and political, freedom and duty, and will and instinct. The play sets these arguments against the subjectivity of the meaning of art, in contrast with the objectivity of the social and political structures in place at the time; for Sophia to get a divorce, for example, she is required to surmount numerous obstacles including advertising it in a newspaper and receiving marriage counselling at huge expense to her, as though not conforming to the state’s idea of love and happiness is something to be deeply ashamed of.

The Bay at Nice is packed with enticing themes, but consistently presents them in ways that aren’t engaging. Although Valentina initially chastises Sophia for wanting to leave her husband for Peter, she warms to him so quickly when he’s introduced that any sense of conflict dissipates fairly quickly. The script is also laden with labouring monologues, as opportunities to give the arguments a sense of prescience and agency are ignored in favour of long-winded stories about the characters’ pasts. These shortcomings prevent the design and direction from feeling scarcely more than perfunctory, simply creating a functional space for the actors to do their best with the dirge of anecdotes they have to deliver.

But do their best they certainly do. Martin Hutson as the fidgety and eager-to-please assistant curator rounds out a quartet of stellar performances, where each actor brings a unique energy and history to the stage. Wilton, as the epicentre of the play’s action, coaxes nuance out of every word, with such gravitas that there are a number of moments where she simply stands and eyes another character and it is totally enrapturing.

The engrossing dynamics of the cast, however, only make you yearn for a script with interactions that fully served them. With such an iconic team involved, it was surprising just how little flair this production contained; The Bay at Nice trudges along with a datedness that fails to justify its return after over thirty years.


Reviewed by Tom Francis

Photography by Catherine Ashmore


The Bay at Nice

Menier Chocolate Factory until 4th May


Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Gronholm Method | ★★★★ | May 2018
Fiddler on the Roof | ★★★★★ | December 2018


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