Vincent in Brixton

Nicholas Wright
Wyndhams
(2002)

The National Theatre has done itself proud with this production of the story of a brief period that Vincent Van Gogh spent in London as a young man.

The main strength of Richard Eyre's vision is an allusive quality of both word and image. So often, the audience discovers itself looking at something or listening to a vivid description that comes straight from a painting by Van Gogh. There are boots and chairs, starlit nights and body angles. This is helped by Tim Hatley's design and Peter Mumford's often painterly lighting.

The young Dutch art dealer who arrives at the home of the Loyers in 1873 is a mass of contradictions. He is remarkably shy but lustful and veers from silence to outrageous statements that shock his hosts. Jochum Ten Haaf manages to look incredibly similar to Van Gogh and with his almost Neanderthal posture creates a strange impression. This is enhanced by his unwillingness to crack a smile in any circumstances.

It is not surprising that he scares the daughter of the house. However, much to their joint surprise, a mutual feeling develops between the artist and Claire Higgins as the landlady 30 years his senior. The scene in which they declare their love from opposite ends of a long table is very beautifully realised.

This was a strange couple. A middle-aged woman prone to fits of the blackest depression and the tactless, temporary temperance man who understands her black moods and who has the ability both to make her happy and desert her when she most needs him. In some ways, they can be seen as two aspects of the same person and ultimately, Mrs Loyer prefigures her lover's madness.

The richness of the imagery is a constant joy but it doesn't always cover the slight thinness of the plotting and lack of depth of the minor characters. However, Emma Handy, as Van Gogh's younger sister Anna, provides a nice piece of comic character acting, greatly helped by Patsy Rodenberg, the National's resident voice coach.

It is, though the performances of the remarkable Jochen Ten Haaf, who successfully conjures up the shade of the artist and Claire Higgins as the woman for whom he falls, on which the play depends. They illuminate Van Gogh wonderfully well but do not quite persuade us that this pair would have fallen in love.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher