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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Bay At Nice
Menier Chocolate Factory  Spring 2019

A drama of debate, with characters fighting over issues that really matter to them, is always welcome, even if, like David Hare's 1986 play, it too infrequently rises beyond intellectual exercise to real human drama.

There is a lot to think about and there are strong acting roles, and that should be enough, though you can't help wishing the play made you care about the characters more.

Set in Leningrad in the 1950s, the play introduces us to an artist who is out-of-fashion because she won't do Soviet Realism. She was once a student (and, it is implied, possibly mistress) of Henri Matisse, and has been summoned from obscurity to authenticate or reject a newly-acquired painting that may be Matisse's. (Though it is never actually mentioned, the play's title is evidently the painting's as well.)

But, while not wholly irrelevant, the painting is really something of a McGuffin, just an excuse to get certain people in the same room so they can talk about something else.

The artist and her schoolteacher daughter are at the centre. The older woman has built her life on making conscious choices, committing herself to them, and stoically accepting the consequences. The daughter wants happiness, and is willing to break commitments and change courses to get it.

Specifically, the daughter wants to leave her husband for another man, but that too is something of a McGuffin, because it is the abstract principles that are debated, not the local application of them the moral issue of how to live one's life.

Typically of Hare, the debate is good, with positions clearly taken and passionately argued. Where he falls short of the Shavian ideal here is that for too much of the play the two women remain mouthpieces for the debating positions, engaging us intellectually but too rarely making us feel.

Part of that is built into the character of the older woman, with the always-exciting Penelope Wilton forced to repress her natural charm to portray a women who has chosen to make herself cold and unfeeling.

It is entirely to Wilton's credit that we catch glimpses of the real woman behind the self-constructed mask, in hints of what it has cost her to become the stoic.

As the daughter Ophelia Lovibond has an easier job, since the younger woman wears her heart on her sleeve and is fighting for her right to feel and follow her emotions.

But partly because the play gives Wilton's character the best arguments and partly because Lovibond is not quite up to sparring with the more experienced actress, her character never gains enough of our respect to engage our sympathies.

There are two more characters, played by Martin Hutson and David Rintoul, but they are written as sounding boards and paper tigers for Wilton's character to talk at or reject with disdain, and the actors can't do much more than serve the play generously and self-effacingly.

There's a good and thought-provoking debate on issues that matter. There's Penelope Wilton. That may very well be enough. But if only we could care.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Bay At Nice - Menier Chocolate Factory 2019
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