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The Bay at Nice at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Ophelia Lovibond (Sophia Yepileva), Penelope Wilton (Valentina Nrovka). Credit Catherine Ashmore.
Ophelia Lovibond (Sophia Yepileva), Penelope Wilton (Valentina Nrovka). Credit Catherine Ashmore.

Set in mid-20th century Soviet Russia, David Hare’s The Bay at Nice is a strong and important one-act play about whether freedom and happiness can co-exist and at what human cost. Menier Chocolate Factory Artistic Director, David Babani, makes an apt and well-timed choice in bringing us the first revival since the work premiered at the National Theatre some 33 years ago – adding a new take for fans of the original production and a rich and different experience for newcomers.

The characters’ sense of claustrophobia – whether in loveless marriages, Communist Party controlled art styles or in the windowless room of Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum – feels all the more tragic by their perception that the society they occupy is now in a fixed state. The presence of a yet-to-be–authenticated painting, either a masterpiece by Henri Matisse or a forgery – looms portentously on stage to remind us of the alternative life in Paris where artist Valentina Nrokva (Penelope Wilton) and her daughter Sophia (Ophelia Lovibond) might have stayed had Valentina not returned home with her infant during the Russian Revolution. Of course, the play’s debut one year into Perestroika (1986) would have given the audience hints of possibility not seen by the characters in its 1956 setting. Today’s audience, some 28 years since the Soviet flag was lowered, enjoys another take on the many questions Hare poses about self-indulgence versus personal liberty as well as the very topically-charged question of – what role does national identity play in the needs of individuals?

Rich with big ideas, Hare’s script reminds us of why the playwright is rightly regarded as one of Britain’s intellectual heavyweights. Much of the play comes to us with fine, and occasionally soaring, oratory delivered mostly by Wilton’s Valentina. This is a play of many words (and plenty of wit) which needs a commanding lead to deliver personal tales spanning decades, continents and art movements. Thankfully Penelope Wilton is up to the task and is a delight to behold. For the script to deliver it needs nothing less than resonant and finely tuned vocal delivery, comic timing, chemistry and stage presence and Wilton impresses with her agility across this challenging role.

As drama rather than a treatise, Valentina faces a series of conflicts and surprises brought about by the desires of her daughter Sophia (played by Ophelia Lovibond) which cause predicaments in 1950s Soviet Union. Ophelia Lovibond is a skilled actress but in this production doesn’t yet demonstrate the range of theatrical layers and nuance that Wilton offers, which is frustrating because it impedes the audience’s emotional engagement with her performance and therefore two crucial relationships of the play. With more than six weeks left in the run, one hopes Lovibond will find greater depth and tension in her role (and less shouting) to reveal her theatrical skills rather than some of the more camera-based energy she conveyed.

David Rintoul plays the tragi-comic role of Peter Linkitsky who is a 63-year-old sanitation worker and model airplane hobbyist for whom 30-something Sophia wants to leave her Party-member husband. A capable actor with resonant vocal delivery, Rintoul’s rendering of Peter and his dynamic with Sophia feels incomplete. One wonders if the great director Sir Richard Eyre focused most of his energy on Valentina such that vital choices about the drivers of this odd couple and their energy together were left unmade. Were they meant to be physically attracted to one another? Or is there supposed to be a palpable absence of chemistry that only we can see? Or are they mere allegorical drivers of Hare’s exploration of whether escaping ‘oppression’ is a universal right or simply common folly of romance? In any event, neither Eyre’s direction nor Lovibond or Rintoul’s performance make us any the wiser.

Martin Hutson as the Assistant Curator, representing a paradoxical creative and abstract faith within strict Communist Party ambition, delivers an appealing and engaging performance demonstrating much theatrical skill. Although on stage for a shorter time than the rest of the cast, Hutson manages to find chemistry in all his exchanges that a lesser actor may have only offered as utilitarian cues for Valentina’s next speech.

The Bay at Nice is an excellent play but it is talk-heavy. Set in a single room, the production design has a significant job to do. Whilst there were some nice touches, like a veiled chandelier amongst the lighting rig, Fotini Dimou’s set design felt like a missed opportunity. Better known as a cinematic costume designer, Dimou’s theatrical scenic design doesn’t embrace the available symbolism of the actual Hermitage (a bizarre blend of decadent czarist artefacts with tired socialist utilitarian adaptations). Hare’s dialogue locates us in a time and place very quickly but the set and costumes offer little assistance and limited multi-sensory appeal. If Eyre wanted an understated but naturalistic environment, he and Dimou didn’t pursue it hard enough – failing to avail themselves of specificity. If he wanted a metaphor for past glory or aesthetic contradiction with Soviet austerity, he was too subtle and generic. The net effect was indecisive.

The Bay at Nice is an absolutely worthwhile night out that delivers plenty of thoughtful drama and interest, especially thanks to Wilton’s masterful performance, but falls short of its potential to be one of this year’s most meaningful productions.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

In Leningrad in 1956, Valentina Nrovka has been invited to the Hermitage to offer her opinion on the authenticity of a Matisse painting, as she knew the great artist personally. Her daughter Sophia, also a painter, meets her there to seek her mother’s help, both financially and politically. This first London revival of David Hare’s play since its premier at the National Theatre in 1986 explores a mother and daughter’s fight for personal ideals and domestic responsibilities, as well as the choices made both in life and art.

Martin Hutson
Ophelia Lovibond
David Rintoul
Penelope Wilton

Written by David Hare
Direction – Richard Eyre
Set & Costume Design – Fotini Dimou
Lighting Design – Paul Pyant
Sound Design – Gregory Clarke

14th March – 4th May 2019


  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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