Few playwrights and directors cause hearts to quicken like Jez Butterworth and Sam Mendes so their return to the West End with The Hills Of California has been awaited with much anticipation.

With the exception of 2008’s Parlour Song, all Butterworth’s plays have had their world premiere at the Royal Court. That relationship which stretches back to 1997 has been put on pause with this latest work debuting at the Harold Pinter theatre (Butterworth is a huge fan of Pinter).

If this move away from his roots signals something of a sea change in his career, The Hills Of California confirms it. Set in a guest house some way away from Blackpool’s main strip, the story revolves around Veronica Webb and her four daughters. Starting off in the sweltering summer of 1976, an off-stage Veronica is dying upstairs breathing her last while in the lounge her clan gather. Gloria (Leanne Best) arrives bringing along two kids and her dull husband, all three of which she berates liberally and at length. Self-possessed Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond) comes along soon after with her husband. Greeting them both is Jill (Helena Wilson) who has never left her mother’s side. The fourth sibling Joan is coming from California but has been delayed.

Once the set revolves, the real fun begins. The younger versions of the Webb sisters are shown as teenagers being prepped with military precision by their mother (Laura Donelly) to be the next Andrew Sisters, a singing group from the Forties. Veronica’s desperate attempts to push them onto fame and fortune leads to an audition in the guest house with an American agent (played with a sinister stillness by Corey Johnson). The fallout from that encounter leads to Joan running off abroad to become a recording star in the US and the other sisters abandoning the musical dreams.

This play is very much a vehicle for Laura Donnelly (Butterworth's partner) who frankly deserves a win after the unfortunate shenanigans behind Netflix’s The Nevers in which she starred in. Although ostensibly an ensemble piece, the best lines and biggest impact comes from her dual roles as the stern matriarch and (slight spoiler) the adult Joan. In the former, she commands the stage with her strong-willed ways, marshalling children and guests with a martial authority while her Joan is more of an enigma, a woman full of stories about the ups and downs of her life on the West Coast.

The rest of the cast do a fine job of holding up their end. Lovibond is another who has had bad luck in the streaming industry: her breakout series Minx in which she plays a female pornographer was cancelled after one season, revived and then cancelled after another season. Here she is magnificent as Ruby, a woman who settled for a man who would always look up to her but still yearns for more from life. Best blazes as Gloria who hides her fear and regret behind a patina of everlasting fury. Shaun Dooley provides stout support as quietly amiable Bill who spends much of his time fixing the guest house’s broken jukebox.

The script itself raises as many eyebrows as it does questions. The three-hour running time is incredibly baggy in places, languidly plodding exposition amid jokes that fall flat and dialogue which sounds too polished. There's some mildly interesting commentary about the gender imbalance in the Seventies and the limited opportunities open to women in that era and an unsubtle subtext around how truth is malleable - Veronica has different stories for how she met the father of her children, the guest house is called Seaview even though there is no actual view of the sea and the adult Joan questions whether truth is more important than "a good story" - something which was hardly revelatory even before Trump's era of "fake news" came about. Amid this lengthy unremarkable kitchen-sink drama, its mightiest peaks appear more like hills.

And the plot holes are plenty, especially in the final act. How does a woman supposedly on her uppers afford to travel halfway across the world to Blackpool? And, when she does arrive, why would she then leave her baby in the porch while she goes indoors for a chinwag? Why would anyone on a hot summer’s night walk around in an Afghan coat? Gloria’s children arrive without books or games yet are only seen for a few minutes in the first act so what are they up to for the rest of the time? How does a jukebox which has been out of action for a decade and filled with classics from the Forties and Fifties suddenly come to life playing a song released 7 years earlier?

The director has said that the first version he received was “half a play”; the end result manages to be both too long, too scrappy and a country mile from the punchy writing and dark subtexts of Butterworth's earlier work. If Mendes was hoping to add an immersive feel, he inadvertently succeeds: while doing a cracking job of executing some excellent set pieces, his languid pacing makes the whole evening feel like the long hot August day portrayed on stage. Even with the frankly unbelievable twists in the back half of the story which betray the earlier earthy realism, this play smoulders without ever really catching fire.

The Hills Of California continues at Harold Pinter Theatre until 15 June 2024.

Photo credit: Mark Douet