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: