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Theatre review: The Bay At Nice

Bitter divide:
Ophelia Lovibond
and Penelope
Wilton are opposite


The Bay At Nice

Menier Chocolate Factory, London ★★★✩✩

THERE are big names attached to this little play by David Hare, first seen in 1986. Two of them are Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton (currently on Netflix in Ricky Gervais’s After Life) who plays Russian former emigre Valentina Nrovka. Another is W1A’s Ophelia Lovibond as her estranged, thirty-something daughter Sophia.

The setting is 1956 with the two meeting in the (then) fading opulence of Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum, recreated by the Menier in characteristic grand style. Valentina is to authenticate a possible Matisse. The master taught her when she lived in Paris, so she should recognise the real thing if anyone can. Sophia has a favour to ask in the form of money to aid her divorce. This is Sophia’s bid for happiness, though her ruthlessly judgmental mother sees it more as self-indulgence.

This being Soviet Russia, communism divides their lives. Valentina is a flamboyant child of the Tsarist regime while Sophia is a dowdy daughter of the Soviet Union and her mother’s opposite in almost every way. Yet the bitterness that separates them is personal rather than political. Wilton is on home ground as the haughty, imperious mother whose disdain for her daughter is tempered by suppressed love. Still. she’s like that with everyone, especially Sophie’s elderly lover Peter (David Rintoul) who is as ridiculous as his age-inappropriate trousers.

Richard Eyre’s closely observed production excels in the detail, such as Martin Hutson’s pinched assistant curator. And the dust sheet covering an opulent chandelier more out of shame than protection is a nice touch. But the evening is affecting rather than deeply moving. And as the conversation dwells on the nature of great art and how it can never be ‘willed into existence’, you can sense Hare’s hand deliberately reaching for big themes, as if the play were its own example of what great art isn’t.