“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.
“warm and intimate, yet vast and epic at the same time”
“Fiddler on the Roof” is based on the stories of one of the most famous and beloved of all Jewish writers; Sholem Aleichem, who came to be known as the ‘folk singer’ of the Russian shtetl. Written between 1894 and 1914 the stories were a series of stand-alone monologues told by the character of Tevye to the reader. Aleichem had started to amalgamate these into a dramatic adaptation but died before he could finish it, but what he had already managed to do in his tales was to capture the hunger and the passion of his people trying to survive under desperate circumstances, but also the humour and the irony.
The often-staged musical has reflected this with varying degrees of success, but it is safe to say that Trevor Nunn’s revival hits the notes perfectly with a truly magical mix of mockery and menace. The story centres on Tevye, the father of five daughters, and his attempts to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions as outside influences encroach upon his family’s lives, not least of which is the edict of the Tsar that evicts Jews from Russia. At the same time, he is coping with the strong-willed actions of his three eldest daughters who wish to marry for love and whose choice of husband moves further away from the customs of the faith and heritage that he is, sometimes reluctantly, clinging onto. This production brings to the fore the deeply rich humour of Joseph Stein’s book. But we are never quite allowed to escape the shadow of the impending threat of exile.
Andy Nyman makes this show his own with his portrayal of the patriarch ruled by his wife, Golde (a perfectly pitched performance from Judy Kuhn). Nyman’s effortless stage presence sculpts a wholly heartfelt and honest portrayal of his character, veering between tradition and compassion, and bending his beliefs, where necessary, for love. He knows exactly when to switch on and off the comedy, a skill matched by the entire ensemble. The same sensitivity is applied to Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. Often unfairly branded as kitsch, the poignancy and the irony are accentuated by the fine performances. And combined with Jerry Bock’s sumptuous score, orchestrated for an eight-piece band, it is an exceptionally moving piece of musical theatre.
Choreographer Matt Cole remains faithful to Jerome Robbins’ original which is a feast for the eye. In fact, all our senses are treated to this outstanding rendition. Full of belly laughs it is a cry from the heart. The gorgeous strains of “Sunrise, Sunset” segue into a euphoric wedding dance which, in turn, is broken by the arrival of a vicious tsarist pogrom.
It is warm and intimate, yet vast and epic at the same time. It speaks softly to each of us yet its message shouts out to all of us. The source material is over a century old, but it is still sadly topical and the final scene where the villages flee their homeland is breathtakingly stirring. The musical ends not with a bang but a whisper. Not with a chorus line but a band of silent souls heading towards an uncertain future. The lone fiddler is beckoned, and he steps down from the roof to follow them.
All that can follow this is the standing ovation this production deserves. A production that is heading towards a far from uncertain future.