A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Vincent in Brixton

Nicholas Wright’s excellent new play is about the twenty-year-old Vincent Van Gogh when he came from Holland to work for the art dealers Goupil and Co.  Like his earlier drama, “Cressida,” Nicholas Wright’s latest work is based on fact, which he imaginatively enlarges upon  He has a gift for complex characterization and sharp dialogue, as well as a sure dramatic sense that combines humor and seriousness.  Arriving in Brixton in 1873, young Vincent, whose two years there we know something about from his letters home, lodged with a widow, Ursula Loyer, a schoolteacher, and her daughter Eugenie.  All this is fact.  Engagingly acted by Jochum Ten Haaf, who not only is Dutch, but also looks much like the artist as a young man, Vincent is both naïve and outspoken, shy and ready for love – with any woman.  Falling madly in love at first sight with Eugenie, but sworn to secrecy by free-thinker Ursula because Eugenie is already having an affair with lodger Sam (Paul Nicholls), Vincent becomes aware that he and Ursula are soul mates: “You’re like a mirror of my despair,” he tells her.

            Actually, the widow is the most deeply drawn character in the work, and Wright provides a many-faceted Ursula for Clare Higgins to ably explore.  Here is a lonely woman, depressed and wearing mourning for 15 years, yet ably running her school and her household, yearning for beauty and hoping to inspire in another the talent she can appreciate while lacking it herself.  Expertly directed by Richard Eyre, the action is set in the kitchen of Ursula’s house, with a centuries-old table in the center and an old-fashioned stove where real potatoes are boiled and tea is brewed.

            In Jochum Ten Haaf’s sensitive portrayal, one can feel in the young Vincent the anger as well as the despair that was to hound him, even as he responds to the beauty of nature and to the plight of the poor, as mentioned in his letters. His sketches done on a short visit home duplicate his actual ones, and as he peels the potatoes for Ursula, one recalls his painting of the Potato Eaters, while Ursula’s description of the stars evokes Starry Night. The arrival of Vincent’s abrasive younger sister Anna (Emma Handy) provides humor and exasperation for the household, and also sets up Vincent’s abrupt departure, ordered by his father and uncle to the Paris branch of Goupil and Co. Returning to London three years later, Vincent finds Ursula much changed and again in despair.  He has given up art for religion, and is teaching at a religious school.  But in Wright’s final twist (let it come as a surprise), we see Vincent back on the path he was to follow so gloriously – and tragically – and hope for Ursula is implied.