Vincent in Brixton (Keswick)

Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

In 1873, only just out of his teens, Vincent Van Gogh came to work in London, following the family trade of art dealer. He lived in England for two longish spells, finally leaving never to return at Christmas 1876, aged 23.

His first lodging was in Brixton, and Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton provides an admittedly speculative interpretation of the facts we have about his stay in this country, and in particular his relationship with the family he lodged with, the widow Ursula Loyer and her daughter Eugenie. The result is a domestically-focused chamber piece, with young Vincent, more interested in preaching than his own artistic capabilities, at its centre.

Wright’s play, in giving us Vincent indoors, is a counterbalance to the ‘starry starry night’ lost-in-landscape clichés to which writing about the artist is prone, and Stefan Escreet’s production makes sure that the kitchen sink is always (metaphorically and literally) in view.

However, Van Gogh is still so charismatic that it’s rather like Hamlet without Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia and Laertes, a star role surrounded by what feels like bit parts; a bit more Brixton and a bit less Vincent would have given the cast and director more to work with. Peter McGovern as Vincent is the centre of the show, and makes the most of our attention to provide a restrained and subtle portrait of a character evolving through time from an intense religious faith towards the artistic sublime (the most obvious reference to the future paintings is kept until the play’s closing moments, and art in general often plays second fiddle to religion for the character).

Essentially what Vincent goes through in this play are relationships, firstly (and unrequitedly) with Eugenie, as whom Isabella Marshall is businesslike and convincingly buttoned-up. After Eugenie comes her mother Ursula. Janine Birkett’s Ursula appears ready to be swept off her feet, definitely playing second fiddle to the charismatic preacher-to-turn artist, and as a result her developing relationship with him is perhaps less dramatically effective than it could have been. Gareth Cassidy’s Sam, Eugenie’s lover, brings a touch of ragged-trousered social awareness to the action; as with Ursula, his own journey is rather under-emphasised.

The one misfire in the production is the tone of Laura Darrall’s performance as Anna, Vincent’s sister, who briefly comes to stay. Too often she ends up being easy to laugh at as the puritanical comedy foreigner, and as a result the focus of her scenes wobbles.

A very solid production of a play where the dice are too loaded in the central character’s favour.

– Stephen Longstaffe

Vincent in Brixton continues in rep until 9 November 2013