It is a pleasure to see Penelope Wilton back on the London stage, giving an acting masterclass, doing what she does best: emitting that enigmatic quality of self-contained stillness and indulging in those quietly withering put-downs as an artist and art expert in David Hare's little known play The Bay at Nice, revived in a new production, directed by Richard Eyre, at the Menier Chocolate Factory. The original production was staged at the National Theatre in 1986 as part of a double bill, alongside Wrecked Eggs.
We are in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and the Hermitage Museum thinks it may have come across a genuine Matisse. So it calls in a woman who knew him: Valentina Nrovka (Wilton) to authenticate the painting. Valentina studied as a young woman under Matisse in post-war Paris, before deciding to return to her homeland, suffering life under Stalin, where her artistic ambitions were thwarted by the prescriptive Soviet regime, which permits only Socialist Realism. She is accompanied by her daughter Sophia, who asks her mother for money as she wants a divorce from her party-member husband so that she can marry a hapless much older man, Peter, in pursuit of liberty and happiness. The quartet of characters is completed by an unnamed curator, anxious that the Matisse should be genuine in order to make his name.
This is a perfectly formed study of familial relations, artistic truth and political realities, in which public and private worlds intersect. It is helped enormously by Richard Eyre's direction which makes the production appear spacious, unhurried and text driven, keeping things moving at a brisk pace.
Fotini Dimou provides an eye-catching, truly atmospheric set–a grand and faded museum room which looks elegantly real, as if we are perched on the very edge of an old Russian palace.
But it is Wilton's magisterial performance which really drives the play, catching exactly the cruel charm of a woman who has closed down her emotional life in order to survive. Her timing is immaculate on lines such as "I act as if I am rich in order to survive, but that is simply good manners", and she manages to suggest the lurking sadness behind Valentina's implacably self-possessed front. Strong support is provided by Ophelia Lovibond as her resentful daughter Sophia, locked in a battle with her mother over her ideals and domestic responsibilities, and David Rintoul as her elderly lover, mocked for being a sanitation engineer.
This, then, is a small gem that says more in its 80 minutes than many plays more than twice its length and certainly makes for essential viewing.
The Bay at Nice
Runs at Menier Chocolate Factory until Saturday 4th May 2019.
Box office: 020 7378 1713.
Last modified: April 1, 2019