By Nicholas Wright
Directed by Jonathan Messer
With Verity Charlton, Olivia Connolly, Adam Hunter, Saskia Post & Richard Cawthorne
Set Design and Costumes by Harriet Oxley
Lighting and Dound by Alan Hirons
Stage Manager Sarah Listro
Vincent in Brixton (5 Oct – 5 Nov) Jim Murphy, The Age 10 October, 2005
Vincent van Gogh is 20, a repressed, church-going junior clerk in an international firm of art dealers. He considers himself a failure at poetry and drawing, but is resolved to somehow make his mark on the world.
In 1873 his company transfers him abroad and the play opens with him arriving in a South London kitchen, looking for lodgings. Ursula Loyer, still in widows’ weeds 15 years after the death of her husband, runs a small school with her daughter, Eugenie. She has another lodger, Sam, a house-painter with aspirations to brushwork of a more artistic variety.
This household, which belies its facade of genteel respectability, has a profound effect on the young Vincent. Specifically, his sexual awakening, with which he has long wrestled in his Calvinist upbringing, begins to unleash the artist within. The “house filled with love” inspires him to improve his drawing, and down-to-earth Sam introduces him to the hitherto forbidden pleasures of Guinness.
The increasingly liberated Vincent is understandably attracted to the young Eugenie, but with that door closed he switches his attention to her mother.
“I love your unhappiness,” he tells Ursula. He recognises that she, too, suffers from the “darkness of the soul”, so their involvement represents the beginnings of not only his artistic talent but his mental torment.
Nicholas Wright’s light drama, based on sketchy accounts of van Gogh’s brief sojourn in London and letters to his brother, Theo, won the Olivier Award in Britain in 2003 and was nominated for a Tony Award in New York.
It plays very easily, almost nonchalantly, and the contemporary ring of the dialogue is at odds with the period feel of Harriet Oxley’s first-rate costumes and set. Yet that potential clash of styles does not seem to matter.
Jonathan Messer’s intelligent direction evokes a melancholia endemic not only to the character of Ursula but to the play as a whole. Adam Hunter, with a skilfully sustained Dutch accent, is outstanding as the blunt, edgy Vincent, and Saskia Post has wonderful serenity as Ursula. The sensuality of the scene in which they reveal their feelings is palpable.
Richard Cawthorne’s deft characterisation of the working-class Londoner Sam, Verity Charlton’s gently unobtrusive presence as Eugenie, Olivia Connolly’s entertaining contribution as Vincent’s meddlesome sister who misconstrues the situation entirely, and singer Arabella Davison’s musical interludes complete one of Red Stitch’s most assured, polished productions.