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 – Taken At Midnight, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 11th October 2014

Taken at MidnightStill in the company of Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, Mrs Chrisparkle and I got up early to take the scenic drive to Chichester for our final visit there this year. Normally we only go once a year but this time the Summer Programme was too good not to wallow in it to the max. We arrived in plenty of time for our yummy lunch served at the Minerva Brasserie, the perfect start to a self-indulgent weekend of theatre overload.

Taken At Midnight, the final play in Chichester’s Hidden Histories season, concerns Hans Litten, the lawyer who subpoenaed Adolf Hitler in 1931 and subjected him to open cross-examination in the criminal trial of four Brownshirts – the Stormtroopers who handled Hitler’s dirty work with such evil gusto. I’d never heard about Hans Litten, but it’s not surprising – as neither western nor communist governments found his activities useful for their cold war propaganda. Historically, his was a low profile for many years and it wasn’t until 2008 that the first biography (in English) about him was written.

Penelope Wilton as IrmgardLitten’s nifty questioning humiliated Hitler, causing him to attempt to defend the indefensible; and it would be an experience Hitler was not going to forget or forgive in a hurry. On the night of the Reichstag Fire in February 1933, Litten was arrested and from then on was kept in concentration camps till the end of his life. Mark Hayhurst’s play follows Litten’s imprisonment through the eyes of his mother Irmgard, a constant thorn in the flesh of the local Gestapo, never allowing her son’s predicament to be forgotten.

Martin HutsonThis is a very dramatic and sombre play given a suitably intense production by Jonathan Church’s lucid direction and Robert Jones’ stark design. Plush padded leather chairs and well-made desks brought on and off centre stage give an illusion of elegance and decency in Nazi Germany; contrasted with the barren dormitory and brutal guards of the concentration camp setting against the back wall of the stage. Harsh lighting and sound plots emphasise the horror of the Third Reich, nowhere witnessed with greater impact than in a hard-hitting scene where Litten, along with his two co-prisoners, Ossietzky and Mühsam, are suspended by their wrists and whip-lashed during questioning – all done by stage effects. But the real power of contrast in this production comes from the juxtaposition of the quiet purity of Irmgard’s speech and behaviour, and the violence of the society that surrounds her.

Penelope WiltonPenelope Wilton’s performance as Irmgard is a thing of beauty. Reserved yet assertive, elegant yet punchy, she is dignity personified in the face of extreme provocation. Her plight as the mother of an imprisoned man, whom she cannot see and whose wellbeing or otherwise she can only guess at, is beautifully and movingly presented; and the way she just hangs on to her politesse whilst sparring with the SS in the shape of Dr Conrad makes you curl your toes with shameless pleasure. The scene where she finally does get to see her son again after so many years is simply a masterclass of understatement.

Prisoner and guardsMartin Hutson’s portrayal of Litten is of a man who never loses his sense of self and his knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong, but whose understanding of the situation in which he finds himself gets progressively less optimistic as the years go by. It’s very moving to see his youthful dynamism get broken by the prison system and his appearance in the penultimate scene when he finally sees his mother again is heart-breaking in his resignation to his fate.

David YellandAlthough its tone is dark, and ultimately very sad – we all know what is going to happen in Germany during the 30s and 40s – structurally the play leaves us with a sense of victory. There’s no doubt about what’s destined for Litten – a savage light and sound effect shows us with horrific clarity; but we still get to see his courtroom moment of glory – for which he eventually paid the ultimate price – bestriding the court like a Colossus and making mincemeat of Hitler, whilst his mother looks on adoringly. It’s a very positive finale.

Penelope Wilton and John LightThis is a splendid ensemble production and all the cast give great performances. Particular plaudits to John Light as Conrad, seemingly reasonable and refined, playing a defensive bat to keep Irmgard at bay until he has no alternative but attack; David Yelland as Lord Allen, ostensibly the great hope that a member of the British House of Lords might possibly hold some sway with Hitler in negotiation, but in reality ineffectual and powerless; and Pip Donaghy as the spirited Erich Mühsam, always maintaining a bright opposition to the cowards who imprison him, unwavering in his taunting of the Nazis, even in the face of imminent death: “Goebbels? He’s just not a funny man…”

A very strong, emotional play with a stunning central performance by Penelope Wilton and terrific support from the rest of the cast – this is an experience at the theatre that stays with you long after curtain down. It continues at the Minerva until 1st November, and I would recommend it without hesitation.

Review – If Only, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 20th July 2013

If OnlyOnce again it’s time for Mrs Chrisparkle and I to go on our annual pilgrimage to Chichester. Time was, when we lived in a little hamlet in north Bucks, that we thought Chichester was the centre of the universe; so much life there, so cosmopolitan. So many shops, restaurants, pubs and, of course, its amazing theatre. Now, we live in the thumping heart of the lively metropolis that is Northampton, we realise that Chichester isn’t all that lively really. It’s a sleepy little place where it’s very hard to get a drink after midnight, and trying to get a meal much past ten at night is a challenge too.

Nevertheless, we still enjoy our visits for the local charm and summer picnics, and the theatre. Because it’s almost a three-hour trip we tend to get tickets to a matinee and an evening show and stay overnight – make a weekend of it. And this year, for our matinee choice, I chose David Edgar’s new political work, If Only. When I was a teenager I was really impressed by his big work for the National Theatre, “Destiny”. It seemed all-encompassing, as it looked back from current day 1976 to partition in India in 1947. Later, of course, he would be responsible for that wonderful two-part adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which condensed 900 pages of prose into 8 hours of thrilling stage drama. I’ve not seen anything else by David Edgar, so I was very keen to see how he would tackle a political drama about the coalition.

Eve PonsonbyIt’s an interesting premise. The first act shows our three political animals, one Labour, one Lib Dem and one Tory, stuck at Malaga Airport in 2010 whilst all the flights are cancelled due to the Icelandic Volcano. The general election is in a few weeks and these are important times for campaigners, MPs and wannabe MPs. Basically, the three of them need to get home as soon as possible, but every option seems to turn to dust. Eventually they buy an old banger, which gets them – neither quickly nor easily – back to the UK via Rotterdam; but in the getting there they hold all manner of discussions about the possible outcomes to the election and how they might best be dealt with. Add to this a young student who hitches a lift and throws many a spanner into their communal works, and it’s a real hotch-potch of political ideas, fears and plans.

After the interval we are propelled into a future world – summer 2014. Not long till the general election, UKIP are riding high in the polls, Christine Hamilton is an MP, our Lib Demmer is an MP with more influence than she could have imagined she would have, and our Tory MP is clinging on to the wreckage with concerns for the future. He’s on a mission to change what he fears will be the result of the next election but he needs the help of the others to achieve it; and the success or otherwise of that venture is where the rest of the play suspends.

Jamie GloverThere’s a lot of good in this play. It certainly gets you thinking about political scheming, and warns against extremism in a very clever and entertaining way. The set is really engaging, with an anxiously pixelating video wall that identifies the time and location of each scene, and which at one stage opens up to reveal a garage and real live Peugeot 205. The set changes completely for the second act, when it simply and effectively recreates a French battlefield chapel. There are some excellent witty observations in the text – I loved the reference to think tanks with a one word Latinate name, and also the fact that the Lib Dem has given up vegetarianism in the second act, which leaves an obvious deduction to be made about principles, just hanging in the air. There’s also the very interesting concept of the eighteenth camel, which gets used to great effect – Google it if you don’t know.

Martin HutsonDespite all this though, I don’t really think it’s quite the sum of its parts. Whilst the play is thought provoking it’s also very wordy, and you frequently get the feeling – well I did anyway – that there are aspects of the plot that you haven’t quite understood and regrettably there is no time to catch up. I was also a little disappointed that the three main characters were so stereotypically predictable. The Tory is a toff, the Labour guy is an “angry young man”, and the Lib Dem lady is a well meaning balanced right-on person in the middle of the spectrum. It’s a pity he couldn’t have swapped them around somehow; that could have been very entertaining. The two male characters were a bit shouty – one of Mrs C’s pet hates – and it all seemed to take place at the same pace – which was rather relentless, in fact. This made it feel that it didn’t have a lot of light and shade. There was also a sense of an unbalanced structure; the first act was full of short scenes in different locations, which lent an atmosphere of variety, but the second act was just one scene in one location, which got a bit – dare I say it – boring.

Charlotte LucasThe performances are all very good, although I particularly liked Eve Ponsonby as Hannah, the student, who is awkward and funny in the first act, and returns alarmingly more mature – or at least different – in the second. Whenever she’s on stage, her presence shakes up the other characters and creates more drama and tension. Without her, it’s a little like watching three TV talking heads at times, with a lot of verbiage to take in but not a lot to stimulate the other senses. Jamie Glover plays Peter Greatorex, the Tory, with a nicely played line in automatic arrogance and short temper; and his concern at how he perceives the 2015 election will go is very credible. Martin Hutson makes a good irascible Labour researcher with an indefatigable desire to get the last word in every argument and perpetually prove points. Charlotte Lucas’ Lib Dem Jo Lambert is in many ways the most interesting character as you see the effect that a little sudden power has on her, and she plays it very well. We enjoyed it – to be honest I think Mrs C enjoyed it slightly more than me, as she was more stimulated by the political arguments and concepts. But on balance, I was expecting something slightly more insightful and dramatic.

PS. Sorry to have to say this, but I think the bar at the Minerva is one of the most inept anywhere. When we visited last year, we caused the staff huge inconvenience by requesting a glass of wine. Apparently it was unheard of. This year, they took our interval order, but when we came out at half time they hadn’t prepared them, so we had to chase around from bar to bar trying to find someone to attend to us. Odd, considering that in the Festival theatre they are supremely professional at the beverage catering.