Vincent in Brixton

Cremorne Theatre (Queensland Theatre Company)


Professional Production

Well, the design team at QTC have done it again! After the stunning set for The Goat , they have come up with another design concept that looks right in every possible way.

It is perhaps fitting that a review of a play about an artist should begin with some comments on the visual aspect of the show. Vincent in Brixton concerns the time that the 20-year-old Van Gogh spent in London in 1873-4 when he was working in his uncle’s firm as a trainee art dealer and had, as yet, no idea of devoting his life to painting. We know that he took lodgings with a widow and her daughter in working-class Brixton and playwright, Nicholas Wright, weaves a story around the relationships he may have formed there and their effect on his future life as an artist.

The entire action of the play takes place in the kitchen of this house and designer, Bruce McKinven, has come up with a design that is not only functional (taps that work, a stove that receives a lot of use), but also extremely beautiful and evocative. The pressed tin patterning of the walls recreates the period and takes the light wonderfully. The delicate painted blossoms call to mind Van Gogh’s own, much later, study of peach blossom. Even the grain of the kitchen table reminds us of the tortured brush strokes of Van Gogh’s last works.

This attention to detail carries through to all aspects of the production. The costumes and hairstyles look just right; the women move as if they have lived in restricting corsets all their lives, they and the men wear serviceable boots. Sam, Vincent’s fellow lodger, wears a particularly sturdy pair that we can imagine he has resoled himself. Vincent’s final sketching of these well-worn boots again reminds us of Van Gogh’s later preoccupation with the details of working men’s lives: their hands, their tools, their boots.

While Vincent (Patrick Drew) is central to the play, the other four characters provide the contrast that allows us to see the painful awkwardness of the young man and his inner turmoil. Anna (Kerith Atkinson) his abrasive younger sister, allows us to catch a glimpse of the pietistic family from which he is struggling to emerge. The easy-going Sam (Aaron Davison) who, though talented, chooses family responsibilities rather than the selfish life of the artist, personifies what Vincent will turn his back on. Eugenie (Amber McMahon), the daughter of the house with whom Vincent falls instantly in love, is far too practical to allow him to turn her into a romantic muse and her simple, generous love for Sam is outside his experience. Her mother Ursula Loyer (Andrea Moor) is a tragic figure in whose suffering Vincent can see the mirror of his own anguish.

One of the problems facing a playwright attempting to speculate about these early London years is that the young Van Gogh is not, inherently, a particularly interesting or attractive figure. Nicholas Wright has done his best to arouse our interest in the young man, and Patrick Drew succeeds in portraying all his enthusiasms, brashness and uncertainty. Ursula says of Vincent that she has never encountered anyone so terribly raw, and the actor captures this vulnerability very well. However, the fact remains that by far the most interesting character in this play is the 56 year old Ursula, whose despair is so much more immediate to an audience that the self-torment of the young artist.

Andrea Moor is compelling in this role, suggesting by everything she does the effort that it takes to keep on functioning in a world that has lost all meaning. Whether she is rushing manically about the kitchen as in the opening scene, or moving with achingly painful slowness as the depression takes hold again, we watch fascinated. When she sits still, head in hands, she personifies despair and prefigures later portraits by Van Gogh of sorrowing women. Nurturing talent in others provides the only purpose Ursula can find in life, and when Vincent momentarily brings joy into her existence the actress makes her incandescent.

Andrea Moor and Patrick Drew bring off some very delicate moments in the play, made more difficult by the fact that their discovery of each other is quite sudden. When, at the end of the play, Vincent returns briefly to the house (looking at this juncture uncannily like the images we know of Van Gogh) the actor has the almost insurmountable task of justifying, not only to the household but to the audience, his abrupt departure and long absence. That the young actor almost succeeds is quite an achievement.

All the performances in this production are good, and if this review has focussed on the two leads it is because the other actors have succeeded in fitting around them seamlessly. As the outsider, Anna, Kerith Atkinson is a forceful and convincing little whirlwind as, dustpan and brush in hand; she attempts to clean up the Loyer household and her brother’s life. Amber McMahon lends a down-to-earth generosity to Eugenie that is very attractive and Aaron Davison’s Sam is quietly effective as a foil to the self-obsessed artist that Vincent believes he must become.

I had some problems with the play itself Best Play at the 2003 Olivier Awards though it may be. Its static nature raised difficulties for the director and actors that weren’t quite overcome (despite a lot of cooking and tea-making) and for my taste some of the dialogue was unnecessarily padded with hints about the future direction of Van Gogh’s work. The text also raised expectations that weren’t met, such as when Sam warns “Not everything in this house is what it seems”, leading us to believe, incorrectly, that there were dark secrets to be disclosed. Most importantly, I believe the audience becomes much more interested in Ursula’s story than that of the callow young Dutchman, however significant he might later turn out to be, and this interest is left unsatisfied.

Nevertheless, this is a production which looks beautiful, sounds authentic (to this non-Dutch ear at least) and portrays sensitively and convincingly the dark hell of depression from which there seems no escape. If you are interested in Van Gogh, it provides an intriguing picture of the young man before he became totally consumed by art and insanity and who knows it may also give you your very best chance of learning to pronounce his unpronounceable name correctly!

Directed by Scott Witt

Playing until 4 June 2005: Evenings: Tues 6:30, Wed-Sat 7:30, Matinees: Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm Running time: 2 hours including interval

— Maureen Strugnell
(Performance seen: Wed 4th May 2005)