What is left to say about Vincent in Brixton, Nicholas Wright's Olivier award winning and Tony nominated play?

Well, for a start, this tour has been substantially recast, with the notable and much appreciated exception of the wonderful Clare Higgins who recreates her portrayal of Ursula Loyer, the complex and depressed middle-aged landlady with whom the young Vincent Van Gogh lodges, and has an affair, during his early years in London.

Vincent in Brixton explores a little known incident in the life of the young artist, only lately discovered from his letters home between 1873 and 1876, when he worked for an international art dealer. As now played by young Dutch actor Reuben Brinkman, Vincent presents as an intense, gauche, sexually awkward innocent, whose declamation of love for his landlady's daughter (Emma Darwell-Smith) within a day of arriving, is somewhat more convincing than his later, rather charmless wooing of the girl's mother.

What Higgins' character sees in her oddball lodger is one of the many issues explored in the subtext. Higgins (under Richard Eyre's expert direction) provides a performance of impeccable stagecraft.

Every phrase, movement and deployment of body language confirms her as one of this country's greatest actresses. Her decline from a moody, repressed but still sexually aware widow, into a depressed and disillusioned woman whose time has passed, is beautifully and compellingly illustrated. Spending almost the entire first act preparing and cooking Sunday lunch, her naturalistic presentation is a wonder to behold.

Brinkman provides an edgy and rather disturbing performance, which would be improved immeasurably, if he spoke a little slower and didn't swallow his words.

Elsewhere in the new cast, Charlie Watts, as fellow lodger Sam Plowman, impresses as an ordinary Joe with pretensions of artistic talent. For me, his low-key self-realisation as to the limits of his talent after seeing some of Vincent's early work, is one of the highlights of the evening.

He is well partnered by Darwell-Smith, and their relationship, from passionate and illicit sex to married, domestic compromise is well handled. Standout in the new cast is Amy Darcy as the artist's brusque, interfering, and annoyingly boorish sister. She provides some welcome comic relief in a piece which in other respects could be irredeemably gloomy, particularly so in Tim Hatley's dreary and shadowy boarding house kitchen in which the entire action is set.

Ultimately, though, the fluent and accessible writing, Eyre's impeccable and sensitive direction, and Higgins' outstanding performance, make this an evening to remember.

- Stephen Gilchrist


NOTE: The following review dates from July 2003 and this production's West End revival at the Playhouse Theatre, since when it has been recast.

Since I first reviewed Vincent in Brixton at its NT Cottesloe premiere last May, it's been to the West End's Wyndham's Theatre, Broadway's Golden Theatre and is now back home, this time at the Playhouse.

The success of Nicholas Wright's superb play is well deserved, and its two leading players - Jochum ten Haaf as the socially awkward young Vincent van Gogh and Clare Higgins, who is haunted and haunting as his London landlady - are as understated and moving as ever. As captivatingly directed by Richard Eyre, the pair provide a slow but quietly overwhelming study of the corrosive effects of depression and the temporary solace these two lost souls find in each other.

But while the play still casts an unusual and remarkable spell - with the naturalism of this production, in which you can literally smell the onstage cooking, also extending to the high emotional intensity that passes between the two principals and Emma Handy still handily offering a welcome dose of comic relief as van Gogh's prudish sister - I'm far less happy with the two Americans who've also travelled back from Broadway with the production to play the younger romantic couple.

Louis Cancelmi swallows a put-on London accent as the housemate painter Sam Plowman to render many of his lines indistinct. It's a character you should embrace for the fact that he's such an uncomplicated counterpoint to van Gogh, but instead he's merely irritating. So, too, is Sarah Drew as the landlady's daughter whom Sam marries.

But these are smallish roles and don't disrupt the overall pleasure of what remains a finely crafted play and production.

- Mark Shenton


NOTE: The following review dates from May 2002 and this production's original National Theatre run.

The Vincent of the title of Nicholas Wright's beautifully imagined new play, Vincent in Brixon, is the real-life character of the troubled Dutch painter Van Gogh, who, in 1873 at the age of 20, came to live and work as an art dealer in London.

Not much is known about his time here, except for letters that he exchanged with his brother, Theo; but other facts have emerged over the years, one as recently as 1971 in which a London postman actually identified the address of the boarding house that he lived in here at the time - 87 Hackford Road in Brixton, SW9. The house duly now has a blue plaque outside it.

More importantly to the matters in hand at the Cottesloe, its kitchen is also the setting for Wright's wonderfully compelling, superbly drawn portrait of the artist as a young man. In reconstructing Van Gogh's formative time there, Wright focuses on the man rather than the work that he would eventually become famous for, because it wasn't until some years after his time in London that he actually declared his intention to become an artist.

When Wright first finds Van Gogh - on the day that he arrives at Ursula Loyer's boarding house - he's a young, tentative, awkward figure who falls in love at first sight with Ursula's daughter, Eugenie. Wright introduces his setting and characters with the economy of a true craftsman; the joy of his play is the complexity with which relationships then unfold.

At the same time, he has powerful and poignant things to say about the demons that both fuel the creativity of the artist but sap the spirit of the man. Vincent finds a kindred - and eventually romantic - spirit in his much older landlady, because they both suffer from depression, but there's also selfishness and thoughtlessness, too, for the damage he causes when he leaves her behind.

In Richard Eyre's lovingly detailed production, you actually smell the cooking on the stove of Tim Hatley's narrow kitchen around which the audience is arranged on opposite sides. There are finely textured performances all around. A young Dutch actor, Jochum ten Haaf, is a younger physical embodiment of the Van Gogh we know from his self-portraits, and as intense as he is naïve. As the landlady he woes then wounds, Clare Higgins gives an aching and desolate performance with a musicality to her voice that recalls Judi Dench. There's also fine support from Emily Blunt as her daughter (Aug 02 - now sensitively played by newcomer Alice Patten in the West End transfer), and Paul Nicholls as a fellow lodger. The second act arrival of van Gogh's younger sister, Anna, hilariously played by Emma Handy, provides some sprightly comic relief.

Like Pam Gems' Stanley (about the English painter Stanley Spencer) and Sondheim and Lapine's musical Sunday in the Park with George (about the French impressionist Georges Seurat), Wright's play has layered and illuminating things to say about the man behind the art so that it's not mere biography but also the stuff of true drama.

- Mark Shenton