Never let a genius into your home or your heart if you want your life to continue on its previous path. Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton lays this dilemma before us in a superb new production by Peter Rowe. The genius in question is the yet-to-be painter Vincent van Gogh; the home and the heart belong to his London landlady Ursula Loyer.
It is fact, and not fiction, that van Gogh worked in London between 1873 and 1875 for the art dealers Goupil, lodged with the widowed Mrs Loyer, fell for her daughter, was promoted to the Paris branch of Goupil, became fanatically religious, was sacked for insolence to well-heeled customers and returned briefly to England and penury.
Fact is underlined by Richard Foxton's realistic setting of the Loyer kitchen. Fiction is incorporated through elements of the story taking place in it over three years.
Van Gogh sometimes seems to be one of those artists whom one admires, seeks to understand, feels pity for - but never quite loves. But in this story Ursula Loyer does love, almost against her will, and pays the price. It's a measure of Francesca Ryan's performance that how she succumbs and the consequences truly touch tragedy.
This is a clever woman, making the best of her widowhood, generous to her lodgers, fair to the neighbourhood children for whom she runs a dame school and gently understanding towards her daughter Eugenie. Ryan radiates authority in black bombazine, a Victorian matriarch whose broadminded integrity is horrendously susceptible to an undermining assault.
Philip Cumbus matches her as Vincent, brash with an over-supply of certainties and harsh in their expression. This is a man who understands what poverty does to its victims, wants to alleviate it (by one means or another - or both at the same time) but is prepared to trample hobnailed over the susceptibilities of people who just happen not to synchronise with his aspirations.
Eugenie, who goes her own way, is played by Claudia Renton, with Tim Delap as her suitor. He's another realist as far as the relationship between art and life is concerned. There's a sharply engraved and acid-etched cameo of Vincent's sister by Anna Lauren, reminding us that both awkwardness and unhappiness can be inherited genes.
- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at the New Wolsey, Ipswich)