Vincent in Brixton

Saturday, 4 May, 2002
Review by: 
Alan Bird

Nicholas Wright’s new play “Vincent in Brixton” directed by Richard Eyre is a superb drama that in my opinion deserves many Olivier Awards.

Vincent van Gogh lived in London for a number of years in his early twenties and part of that time was spent living as a lodger in the house of the widow Ursula Loyer, along with her daughter Eugenie and her other tenant Sam Plowman. Not much is known about this period in van Gogh’s life and the little that we do know comes from his correspondence with his bother Theo, but even this source is incomplete as there is an unexplained six-month gap in van Gogh’s letters. We know that during a brief visit to Holland his relationship with his family deteriorated and on his return to London he, along with his sister Anna, abruptly left the Loyer household. Van Gogh’s mother wrote of these events, “Since the summer he has been abnormal. The secrets of the Loyers did him no good”.

Nicholas Wright users this background to write a fictional drama about the ‘Loyer’s secrets’, secrets that give birth to Vincent’s sexual and artistic awakening. It is an awakening that embraces a world of sorrow and despondency and witnesses the beginnings of his descent into madness.

Ursula Loyer is a troubled woman who suffers from depression. When Vincent arrives at the house he quickly perceives the despair and blackness that fills Ursula’s soul and finds in her a fellow pilgrim with which to travel through the veil of melancholy that devours them both. Overcome with feelings of futility and despondency Ursula seeks to inspire genius in others and so lift them out of life’s mediocrity. She compares herself to a black sky dotted with brilliant blazing stars in which she is the black empty space that can possibly be the firmament in which some bright star can shine.

Vincent finds beauty in Ursula’s despair and discovers in this a passion that is greater than the initial love he felt for Eugenie, Ursula’s daughter. However, his strict Calvinist upbringing clashes with the progressive values that hold sway in the household. His family suspects that his anti-social behaviour towards them stems from some immoral activities within the Loyer household, and so they make plans for him to leave London. When his sister Anna arrives at the house mayhem quickly follows. Her quest for household cleanliness seems a fitting metaphor for her own search for inner purity. Though her stay in the household is brief, her inquisitive nature and false accusations finally persuades Vincent to leave the house unexpectedly and without explanation.

When he returns to pay a surprise visit two years later he finds Ursula once again wrapped in a cloud of darkness, her lodger Sam is now married to her daughter and has exchanged his dreams of being an artist for a family. When the now dysfunctional household sit down to drink tea, Vincent begins to sketch his boots and finally surrenders to his solitary artistic passion. Ursula silently removes the lamp from Sam who is reading a newspaper and places it in front of Vincent to enable him to continue drawing within the gathering darkness. Finally her own darkness has allowed a star to shine; at last she has been the cause of something remarkable, and she sits silently in awe as she witnesses the genius at work.

Clare Higgins steals the limelight with her exceptional performance as Ursula. The depth of her despair and her longing to be the progenitor of something great appears to visibly consume her. Jochum Ten Haaf who plays Vincent gives his own magnificent performance as the distressed and confused Vincent. He brings such intensity to his character that it makes him both strangely sagacious and unworldly.

Emily Blunt as Eugenie and Paul Nicholls as Sam both give good performances. Emma Handy as Anna van Gogh is also good though at times she is too strident and over excitable.

Tim Hatley’s wonderful stage design of a simple homely kitchen, which is dominated by a rough wooden table, works well for this play. The table, a simple practical mediocre object, looks like something out of a van Gogh painting.

An exceptional play that will have you riveted to your seat.

Alan Bird

Ambiguous territory in the life of any famous person always offers a tantalising opportunity for any writer, and Nicholas Wright's superb recreation of painter Vincent Van Gogh's early life in Brixton is a model of biographical drama at its best. After a sellout season at the National's Cottesloe theatre, it's transferred to Wyndham's for a limited run and although now lacking the cherishable intimacy of the former auditorium, it's great that more people will have the opportunity to see one of the best new plays of the year.

Van Gogh lodged at 87 Hackford Rd SW9 during 1873-4 and although there are extant letters chronicling this formative period, there's still substantial room for a playwright to flex his dramatic muscles. It was not however in the capacity of painter that the young Dutchman came to London- his artistic vocation lay dormant at this stage and it was as a junior art dealer that he arrived aged twenty.

As Wright imagines it, he lodges with what Van Gogh described as 'a very amusing family': landlady Ursula Loyer who runs a small school for boys, her daughter Eugenie and fellow lodger Sam who dreams of life as an artist. Swiftly developing an intimate relationship with widow Mrs Loyer (a warm, bravura performance from Clare Higgins) with whom he shares a 'mental affinity' and a shared susceptibility to depression. Gauche, naïve and outspoken, Van Gogh is played superbly well by Jochum Ten Haaf who makes the painter's voyage of discovery- both personal and artistic- memorably persuasive. Higgins is quite brilliant as a woman of low self-esteem, prone to frequent despair who nonetheless nurtures the hope of inspiring ambition in another.

Set in the kitchen of Mrs Loyer's home- a place well conjured by designer Tim Hatley-Richard Eyre directs with customary flair and though there are occasional dramatic lulls in the second half, overall the play works beautifully. Alice Patten as Eugenie, ex Eastender Paul Nicholls as the affable Sam and Emma Handy's hilarious Anna Van Gogh all offer good support in an eminently warm and perceptive play.

(Amanda Hodges)


What other critics had to say.....

DARREN DALGLISH says, "A poignant and intriguing new play with great acting, particularly from Clare Higgins who is outstanding as a morose widow. " CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Fascinating, funny and sometimes deeply moving new play." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "An evening to savour." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Jochum Ten Haaf is superbly funny and moving ." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Intelligent, sensitive new play." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, " An enthralling play, Clare Higgins...acting beautifully, and Richard Eyre is back directing, on top form." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "An exceptionally fine production." JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "One of the best new plays ever presented by the National Theatre."

External links to full reviews from newspapers

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