Written in 2002 by Nicholas Wright, Vincent in Brixton premièred at London’s National Theatre and went on to receive a Tony Award nomination and win the Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2003. Set in 1873, it centers on artist Vincent van Gogh’s time in London, where he briefly lived and worked as an art dealer for his family’s business. He rented a room at 87 Hackford Road owned by Mrs Sarah Ursula Loyer, a widow. She generated income by running a small school for children out of her front parlour and letting out rooms to lodgers. At the time in which the play is set, she lived with her daughter Eugenie and another tenant by the name of Samuel Plowman.
To this day, one of London’s famous blue plaques is proudly affixed to the front of the house stating that van Gogh lived there between 1873 and 1874. In this production by St Jude’s, Ole Wiebkin’s excellent set design includes a facsimile of the plaque – a nice touch – but that is just the very start of the magic!
The action of the play is largely fictional, and as the programme notes say, the play “traces the transforming effects of love, sex and youthful adventure on van Gogh’s still unformed talent, portraying him as he might have been and supposing a poignant affair with his landlady that might have happened.”
Alexander Whitrow plays Van Gogh with assuredness. He gives his Vincent a suitable measure of youthful cockiness coupled with a suggestion of aloofness that sits well with the Dutch. Whitrow sustains an accent that imbues his performance with a distinctiveness that pleases. His chemistry with Nicole Rutty (Mrs Loyer) is demonstrable. With considerable skill, Rutty delivers a taut performance that superbly reveals pent up frustration and craving that gradually but discreetly gives way to a release of emotion. The passion between the two characters is understated, but the text doesn’t really allow for any ardent outpouring. Rather, their feelings for each other simmer away, and Whitrow and Rutty do well to keep it evident, especially in act one which is at risk of getting slow.
Rounding out the cast are Veronika Wlodarczyk, who plays the daughter, James Fazzalari as Plowman, and Gabrielle Douglas as van Gogh’s sister Anna. Douglas is excellent in her role and reminds us of the social mores of the time and the restrictions under which women were expected to conduct their daily lives. Wlodarczyk and Fazzalari are both very comfortable in their performances, and capably portray youthful excitement that in time gives way to resignation and disappointment.
Wiebkin’s set is perfect, and is almost a sixth character. The house oozes character. In some ways it is almost too much – decoration on top of embellishment – but it works and allows the audience to be drawn into the daily lives of each of the characters. Gilian Cordell’s costumes complement the set, as do the stage properties coordinated by Sharon Lindley. Leigh Wheatley’s lighting design added considerably to the poignant mood, as did Director Geoff Brittain’s interesting choice of contemporary music.
Brittain and St Jude’s Players have together fashioned another excellent production.