The Menier chocolate factory has the ‘pulling power’ of a much larger theatre, due in part to its ability to produce shows that make very successful transfers to the West End. It offers an opportunity to see big name actors in an intimate setting and David Hare’s ‘The Bay at Nice’ is one of these chances, with Penelope Wilton leading a cast of established actors in a gently paced exploration of ideas, writes Katie Kelly.

The setting for the story is in fact a very long way from sunny Nice. Instead the action takes place in a mothballed room of the Hermitage museum in Leningrad in 1956. An understandably anxious museum curator has brought in an expert to verify a possible Matisse painting. In a totalitarian regime, professional embarrassment has potentially lethal consequences. Valentina Nrovka studied under Matisse and the hope is that she can identify the painting by familiarity with its style and ‘feel’.

The visit to the museum provides a reunion between Valentina and her adult estranged daughter Sophia. The daughter is there to seek both her mother’s approval and financial support for a divorce from a stifling teacher husband, so that she can pursue a relationship with an older man.

Valentina is then cast in the role of judge not only of a painting’s authenticity but also the love life of her daughter. As both mother and art critic, Valentina is brusque, haughty and acerbic. When she reminisces about her time in France, studying to be an artist, a more passionate side of her emerges. The various characters explore issues of will versus feeling in a variety of ways, in art, in love, in making the best of disappointment. Valentina chose to return from the freedom of the West and raise her daughter in her native Russia which, amongst other things, appears to have ended her nascent career as an artist. In a world where the issue of refugees fleeing political terror is in our news every day, it is interesting to see a portrayal of someone who has made the journey in reverse, the motivations and consequences of that unusual decision. 

The Menier has a restaurant and for many people, eating there before the performance is an integral part of the experience. At only 75 minutes long, The Bay of Nice finishes in time for those who wish to discuss the ideas it explores in the bar afterwards as well. Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU until 4 May. Times: Tues – Sat 8pm. Sat & Sun 3.30pm. Admission: £35 – £42.50

Phone: 020 7378 1713

Photos: Catherine Ashmore