Review – The Bay at Nice, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21st April 2019

The Bay at NiceI’ve been an admirer of David Hare’s work right from the start of his career (there can’t have been many 12-year-olds who read Slag in the early 70s) and it’s rewarding to fill the gaps in one’s knowledge by seeing the various gems of his back catalogue. I had never heard of The Bay at Nice, his 1986 one-act play set in a grand but comfortless display room at the Hermitage in St Petersburg – or Leningrad, as it was then. But I rarely pass up a chance to see what the Menier next has to offer, so it was with no preconceptions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I chose to spend our Easter Sunday in Southwark.

Ophelia Lovibond, Martin Hutson and Penelope WiltonThe year is 1956. Esteemed art expert Valentina Nrovka has been asked by the curators of the Hermitage to inspect a new acquisition – allegedly a Matisse – that has recently been bequeathed to the museum. There is some uncertainty as to its authenticity; and, as Mme Nrovka knew the artist personally in her youth, it is thought she would see through any deliberate attempts by a faker to pretend to the great man’s work. She is accompanied to the Hermitage by her daughter, Sophia, herself a part-time artist, and full-time disappointment to her mother. Over the course of 75 minutes, mother and daughter dissect their difficult relationship as Sophia’s marriage breakdown and new romantic liaison is revealed, against a backdrop of Communist Party politics, the motivation for creativity, the lure of the homeland, and the valuation of art.

Martin HutsonOne of the genuinely thrilling aspects of seeing a production at the Menier is the discovery of how they have configured its marvellously adaptable acting space. Fotini Dimou’s set has required the 200-or-so seats to be re-arranged, L-shaped, on just two sides of the theatre, to create a comparatively huge space, filled with coloured, borrowed light, to represent one of those enormous Hermitage galleries. Plush red and gilt chairs have been stacked unceremoniously to one side of the stage, beneath a Grand Master’s work; on the back wall of the stage, double doors that lead to the rest of the museum, the only clue that there’s a life outside. As the late afternoon turns into the early evening, Paul Pyant’s lighting design gradually becomes progressively dimmer, which may imply that the longer you talk about life and art – and the less you actually do it – clarity and understanding of these issues reduces. When Mme Nrovka finally looks at the painting, there’s only enough light for a peremptory glimpse – mind you, that’s all she needs.

Penelope WiltonPenelope Wilton is simply magnificent as Valentina, a woman who has reached a time in life when she is so accustomed to suppress any individual desires, who values the altruism of self-denial, if it’s to achieve a greater good. Her daughter, she reckons, is shallow beyond belief, following a path of self-interest which both ill-serves her family and prevents her from artistic expression. And she doesn’t like to be shaken up and questioned by what she perceives to be an inferior intellect; and is perfectly comfortable to say precisely what she thinks, regardless of how it might offend or distress others. Ms Wilton delivers Hare’s tremendous lines with natural authority, cutting sarcasm, forceful majesty, and a reasoned spite, in what is probably my favourite performance in a play so far this year.

Ophelia Lovibond and David RintoulGiving almost as good as she gets, Ophelia Lovibond is excellent as Sophia; patronised, forced to explain herself, intimidated into defiance against her mother and her strictures. It’s a great portrayal of someone who, in everyday life has all the confidence needed to lead an assertive life but who crumbles under parental pressure. David Rintoul is also very good as her new man Peter, awkwardly hovering in the sidelines, choosing silence rather reacting to a taunt, putting his case plainly, honestly and supportively. And Martin Hutson is also great as the Assistant Curator, treading carefully around the Grande Dame’s ego, gently guiding her in the direction he wants, to the benefit of both self and party.

Ophelia Lovibond and Penelope WiltonDespite its length, this dynamic little play packs a real punch and gives you so much to consider, laugh at, and identify with. Richard Eyre’s production is a first-class experience all the way. We loved it! It’s on at the Menier until 4th May, and I’d heartily recommend it.

Production photos by Catherine Ashmore

Review – The Effect, Studio at the Sheffield Crucible, 11th July 2015

The EffectLaughing in the face of M1 roadworks, we drove up to Sheffield for the third time this year for yet another Crucible-based theatre weekend. And what could be a more enjoyable and sociable way to start than by meeting up with Lady Lichfield and the young Duchess of Dudley at Wagamama for a yummy lunch of warm chilli chicken salad followed by white chocolate and ginger cheesecake. Add some Sauvignon Blanc into the mix et voilà! Instant delight.

The trialAll four of us headed off to the versatile little Crucible Studio, one of the best small acting spaces anywhere, which, rather like the Menier, lends its own personality to any production lucky enough to take place there. The Studio’s current offering is The Effect by Lucy Prebble, which won the Critics Circle award for Best New Play in 2013, when it was originally produced by the National Theatre. This is the first time I’ve seen anything by Ms Prebble – we missed ENRON, much to our dismay. But I can verify she is a writer of great wit and imagination, and that The Effect is a fascinating, thought-provoking play that intrigues, amuses and horrifies in equal measure.

Ophelia LovibondI’ve never been involved in a drug trial. I don’t think I know anyone who has been involved in a drug trial. And, having seen The Effect, I’m not sure I would ever want to. The scene is a science lab, where Connie and Tristan, amongst unseen others, have volunteered for a trial of a new drug, which will require their undivided presence and compliance for four long weeks. No mobile phones, no outside contact, and oppressed by near-constant supervision. Once Dr Lorna James, who’s in charge of the trial, has satisfied herself that the volunteers are indeed suitable for the task ahead, the experiment commences. Small dosages at first, followed by regularly rising dosages of the drug on trial appear to create side effects that the doctor and the Pharmaceutical company were not expecting; and Connie and Tristan fall in love. But is the trial all it seems? Is the doctor as in control as she seems? Is the pharmaceutical company as open about the trial as they seem? And is the future rosy for the two young lovers?

Henry PettigrewThe play is so beautifully and subtly written that you can interpret many of its events in different ways. For example, there’s the question of the placebo. If one of the clinical study participants is taking placebo rather than the drug, then it can’t be the drug that’s causing the side effect – can it? But maybe no one’s on placebo. Maybe it’s not only the drug that’s on trial here. And what happens if someone accidentally overdoses? Supposing one of the candidates hasn’t been fully truthful about their medical history? Supposing the pharmaceutical company and/or the doctor in charge have their own private agenda? How scientific can any trial be when you’re dealing with people, because people have their own emotions, foibles, secrets; and nothing can ever be 100% watertight. Can it? You’ll go on asking these questions for hours.

Interval time leftDaniel Evans’ direction suggests the audience are minor participants in the trial too. The stark white chairs on the stage are the same as the stark white chairs on which the audience sit. The computer readings are displayed on large screens in all four corners of the auditorium so no matter where you sit you can see them. The fifteen minute interval is counted down on a screen both inside and outside the auditorium, daring you to be late back after your half-time Pinot; nobody was, as we didn’t want to face short shrift from Dr James. All in all, you get a great sense of everyone participating in the same experiment; it’s a real shared experience.

Priyanga BurfordThe cast of four give outstanding performances, fully inhabiting the intricately drawn characters that Lucy Prebble has created. Ophelia Lovibond is simply stunning as Connie. Careful to conceal aspects of her current relationship and resentful of questions that she considers are too personal, she appears nevertheless willing to play the clinical trial game to the best of her ability. But you never quite know what her attitude to any event, any question, or any situation might be. You can read in her eyes as she processes new items of information, that she is working out what her reaction is going to be. My guess is that in every performance she is probably understanding anew each time what her character is going through; and you, the audience, are accompanying her on that rather savage journey. Emotional, anxious, uncomfortable; Ms Lovibond takes Connie through a gamut of reactions, before finally becoming a changed person; one with a purpose in life that she had previously lacked.

Stuart BunceShe is matched with an equally brilliant performance by Henry Pettigrew as Tristan. Where Connie is initially reserved and careful, Mr Pettigrew presents Tristan as an instantly self-confident, flirtatious charmer; a natural rule-breaker (not the kind of person you’d really want on a clinical trial!), a pusher of boundaries, a loveable rogue, with more than a side-dish of lock up your daughters about him. Mr Pettigrew interprets him as a really credible, adult version of a naughty schoolboy, encouraging other classmates to skip lessons and sneak off into an out-of-bounds area where they will get up to no good. MemoryTogether the two have a wonderful chemistry, and you’d swear they were either in love in real life or really, really good actors. As the play progresses and the balance of power between the two characters changes, so that Connie is more in control and Tristan’s fortunes have declined, the love still continues, albeit more in an “in sickness or in health” vein. Nevertheless, I note with amusement the first appearance of a stagey “masturbation under the bedclothes” scene since Miss Julie Walters did it to the late Richard Beckinsale in Mike Stott’s Funny Peculiar back in 1976; although if I remember rightly, her provision of erotic stimulation wasn’t limited just to her hand. You can’t beat a good “providing sex to a patient” scene for shock comic purposes.

Falling in loveConnie and Tristan are not the only twosome to have their problems in this play. There’s obviously been some history between Dr Lorna James and Toby of the Pharma. It’s never made totally clear quite what went on between them, but as a result Dr Lorna has something of a tenuous grasp on sanity; and, like Tristan, but in her own way, she too falls foul of the Pharma client. In a slightly heavy use of symbolism, Toby continues on, wrecking lives one way or another, where you might otherwise traditionally expect the drug company to look after people’s wellbeing. Priyanga Burford gives a mesmerising performance as Lorna, the doctor with a steely eye for the accuracy of the trial but who begins to fray around the edges as her ability to control comes into question. The aftermathAnd Stuart Bunce is splendidly disconnected as Toby, ostensibly reasonable and professional, but hurting too; and with just the right lack of empathy not to notice the trail of destruction in his wake.

A fascinating play, with first class performances in a stunning production. What’s not to like? It’s running until Saturday 18th July – unmissable.