Love Story South of the River

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Review of 'Vincent in Brixton' by Nicholas Wright, Cottesloe Theatre, London

In case you didn't make the connection, 'Vincent in Brixton' is indeed about Van Gogh. But it is not about Vincent the famous painter who only decided to become an artist at the age of 27 and shot himself at the age of 37 (in 1890), but Vincent aged 21, who was transferred by a Dutch art dealer's firm to work in its London branch. He rents a room in a Brixton house with a Mrs Loyer and her daughter, and another lodger, Sam.

The play is about what happened over the three years he lived, left and returned there. The writer, Nicholas Wright, constructed the play out of family myth, a suggestive six month gap in his frequent letters to his younger brother Theo and parents, and imagination. The result is a simple, engaging and moving love story between the ardent and passionate young Vincent and his landlady lover Ursula Loyer, nearly 30 years his senior, who eagerly responds.

That is all we need to know to make the play worth seeing. But the embellishments to the story are all relevant and well directed, and very much enhance its absorbing quality, such as the set, whose centrepiece is the old kitchen table taking up most of the available space and an important participant in the action surrounding it; the evocative clothes worn by Ursula, black for loneliness and gay colours for love, and by Vincent, more or less scruffy according to the current emotion.

The acting is magnificent. The Dutch actor Jochum ten Haaf is superb as the innocent yet eager impulsive young Vincent, and equally so Clare Higgins as Ursula Loyer, whose gliding between despair and joy is tremendously moving while being sensitively underplayed. A sort of subplot relating events at the time of this play to Vincent's later fame is played out in the relationship between Vincent and Sam Plowman, the other lodger, who is a house painter but has ambition, encouraged by Vincent to go to art school, and Vincent's growing interest in art and early attempts at drawing. Everything about this play is sensitively thought out, making it an undemanding but pleasurable night out.