BY CHRISTOPHER WALKER
If you haven’t yet discovered the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre, then now is the time to go.
Their revival of David Hare’s play The Bay at Nice is first class, intelligent entertainment.
Penelope Wilton, familiar to fans of Downton Abbey and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel once more appears as a “bloody difficult woman.”
She possesses the role. It is the performance of her life – and a delight to watch. The Menier company opened a chocolate factory in Southwark in the 1860s, which became a fringe theatre in 2004.
It doesn’t look like a theatre, to be fair it doesn’t look like a factory, either. And with the small sign hanging upside down off its hinges, it is really hard to find. But it’s worth seeking out.
This 180-seat theatre punches way above its weight. This is certainly true with The Bay of Nice by David Hare.
Hare is one of our leading playwrights with a string of hits to his name such as Pravda, Racing Demon and The Judas Kiss.”
His mantelpiece is packed with awards. He has also conquered Hollywood with The Hours and The Reader, starring Kate Winslet. So it is a pleasant surprise to discover this less-known work.
Hare wrote the play in the 1980s at a time when the Soviet Union was still very much a cold, dark place, little visited by Westerners.
For Millennials this requires adapting to a very different kind of restricted society.
Especially so as the action of the play takes place in 1956, not too long after the death of Stalin.
The plot concerns an ageing Valentina (Penelope Wilton) who has been brought into the Hermitage Museum to authenticate a Matisse painting.
You begin by wondering why on earth they would bother with this querulous difficult woman. But then it soon becomes evident that her knowledge of Matisse is encyclopaedic.
He was her teacher an aeon ago in Paris, before the Revolution. Was he perhaps also her lover..? On one level it appears Matisse, and the painting itself, cleverly hidden from the audience behind a dust sheet throughout the play, is what this is all about.
But soon it is clear that Valentina and her razor sharp mind are examining other subjects. Not least the young Assistant Curator of the museum (Martin Hutson). She has little time for him.
A company man, he is clearly climbing his way up the ruling Communist Party by making all the right moves. Art seems to be a secondary consideration. There is a wonderful moment when he finally looks at the painting, we suspect for the very first time.
Thanks to a brilliant lighting effect it finally comes to life for him.
Valentina’s daughter Sophia is a bundle of nerves (played with wonderful neuroticism by Ophelia Lovibund).
With Penelope Wilton as a mother who can blame her? The mother-daughter dynamic is one of the most painful and authentic that you will see on stage. Sophia gradually outlines to her mother how her marriage has failed, and she is now in love with another man.
To Valentina’s, and our, surprise, he suddenly appears at the gallery for her examination. It is soon clear he (David Rintoul – quite perfect), and his relationship with her daughter, is what Valentina has really been brought here today to rule on.
Is he, is their relationship, a fake?
It would be easy to come away with the impression that Valentina is a cold, even cruel, mother. But when you consider the extent of the sacrifice she has made for her daughter, and offers to make now, you realise the depth, and the complexity of her character.
This short play (just an hour and a quarter) is a must for Hare lovers, and indeed anyone with an interest in Matisse. But above all it is worth seeing for Penelope Wilton’s performance which is a tour de force.
The Bay at Nice by David Hare plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until May 4