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Review: VINCENT IN BRIXTON at St. Jude's Hall, Brighton

A fictional account of Van Gogh's time in London.

Review: VINCENT IN BRIXTON at St. Jude's Hall, Brighton Reviewed by Eddy Knight, Thursday 21st April 2022.

What would Vincent van Gogh have been like as a young man? Well, possibly something like the way Nicholas Wright speculated in his 2002 play, Vincent in Brixton, which garnered the Olivier Award for best new play when first performed by The National Theatre. And what a play it is! All of the accolades heaped upon it in London, and later, on transfer to New York, were richly deserved.

It is, of course, a fiction, but the playwright has taken what we know of Vincent's later life, the genius descending into madness, the cutting off of an ear, and the final suicide, and married this psychological picture to the scant facts known about his early years. He had a strict Calvinistic upbringing, and was sent to London to learn the art dealing business, where he fell in love with a young girl who rejected him. Later, he returned from Paris, having failed as an art dealer, and taught at a London religious school for a while, before becoming a missionary amongst the poorest of the poor in the Netherlands. There, he tried to follow his understanding of Christ, giving away all of his possessions, which even his church considered excessive. All the while, he was drawing, without realising that this would shortly become his true vocation.

In this play, he lodges in a Brixton boarding house, because he has become infatuated with the landlady's daughter, who rejects him in favour of Sam, another lodger, a house painter who dreams of becoming an artist. Although, at this point, Vincent has no ideas of becoming an artist himself, he can see that Sam doesn't have the touch of originality required, and dashes off a few sketches himself to prove it. Having been thwarted by the daughter, he turns his attentions to her mother, a forty-something widow of more than usual intelligence and insight, trapped in the usual female domestic role of the 1870s. While not believing herself capable of greater things, she is entranced by the spark she sees in young Vincent and allows herself to be seduced by the potential she perceives.

This is the high point of the play and requires the greatest skill from both actors to carry it off believably and sympathetically enough that the audience is carried with them. And, joy of joys, we were! Alexander Whitrow, as Vincent, had given us a gamut of emotions ranging from bumbling foolishness to brash naivety, from childlike innocence to overweening self-confidence, while underneath revealing the vision of a true artist who could utter the phrase "no woman is old who loves and who is loved", and have that resonate so positively throughout the whole audience.

The fact that this was so completely believable is also dependent on the skill of the actor playing opposite him. The character of Ursula Loyer is a role that any actor worth her salt, on being handed it at an audition, should run down the road laughing with glee, and I can imagine Nicole Rutty doing something similar. It is a peach of a role and, although this has been changing of late, it is still possible to count the truly great female roles on a couple of hands. I would count this as one of them. Not that the role is easy, quite the reverse, it is the overcoming of the inherent challenges which makes it so desirable to play. Rutty achieves this so admirably, that her performance is a joy to watch. Throughout the play, her subtle actions, such as the care she takes in warming Vincent's damp coat before the stove, silently emphasise and convey her inner feelings. The changes of emphasis which she manages to portray, from self-aware intelligence but rational acceptance, up to disbelief but absolute elation, and then down to stunned depression, she portrays with such strength that the last scene, when she is horrified by Vincent's born-again platitudes, is gut-wrenching to watch her suffer through.

These two are the main protagonists, but are more than ably supported by the three other cast members. Particular mention must be made of Gabrielle Douglas as Vincent's busy-body younger sister, intent on bringing him back to the Calvinistic path of righteousness and clean living. Hateful, or just plain irritating characters, can sometimes be the most fun to play, and I am sure that Douglas enjoyed playing Anna Van Gogh as much as I did watching her. James Fazzalari gave us a believable London painter and decorator with aspirations, but whose feet are still firmly on the ground enough to make a perfect contrast and foil to the unstable Vincent. As his paramour, and eventual mother of his children, Veronika Wlodarczyk gave us a believable young woman who becomes empowered by motherhood and content, so far, with her role in life.

Director Geoff Brittain, and his assistant Matilda Butler, need to be congratulated for getting such fine performances out of the cast. This is a play redolent with subtle nuance, in need of light, compassionate handling to bring out the best in the actors. A feat they managed admirably.

The set is nothing short of spectacular, at first, I was worried it might have been a little overdone but, in fact, the attention to detail perfectly complemented the action. Whoever it was who put a rendition of the van Gogh chair from the Arles painting to one side is a person after my own heart. Having once been assistant director on a State Theatre production that required a working kitchen, I am aware of the complexities involved and was terrifically impressed by this one. The costuming coordinator and her assistants also need congratulations as I found all of it to be perfect, particularly the aprons of the younger women, but most especially the contrast of the light dress worn by Rutty to express her character's re-engagement with life, as opposed to her usual black. I did think the dungarees worn by the painter in the last scene could do with a little distressing, and there were a couple of moments when the lights seemed a tad in the wrong place, but these are minor quibbles when compared to the excellence of the overall production.

All in all, I feel that the cast and crew of Saint Jude's Players deserve the highest praise that I can give them, and encourage anyone at all interested in quality theatre to get along to watch this one. You won't be disappointed.

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