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Higgins delivers a masterclass in Vincent in Brixton



Review by David Munro

VINCENT in Brixton, now on tour and presently at the Richmond Theatre, comes garlanded with four Awards for its West End presentation, and a Tony nomination for its New York production.

Could it, I wondered, live up to its reputation? The answer is yes. In fact, as far as I was concerned, it more than deserved the acclamation it had received.

The play deals with a period in the life of Vincent Van Gogh when he lodged with a Mrs Ursula Loyer, in Brixton.

After an initial attraction to Mrs Loyer's daughter, Eugenie, he falls in love with Mrs Loyer and they become lovers, which, the play postulates, stimulates him into leaving the commercial world of selling art and becoming an artist.

Whilst Van Gogh, or Mr Vincent as he calls himself, is the nominal main character, it is in fact on Mrs Loyer on whom the play depends. It is her reaction to Van Gogh and her transformation from indifference into an all-consuming and ultimately destructive love for him that gives it the dramatic impetus.

As Mrs Loyer, Clare Higgins give a performance which has been justly praised and honoured. I wondered whether, at the time she won those awards, her performance was as perfect as the one I was lucky enough to witness at Richmond.

It was faultless; every detail sketched in with absolute precision and consummate artistry.

From the opening, when she is preparing a meal, cutting up vegetables and at the same time interviewing Vincent as a prospective tenant, to the final scene when, as a broken woman resisting her family's attempts to put her in a home, she realises and accepts that Vincent has moved out of her sphere into one of his own, she does not put one dramatic foot wrong.

The evening abounds in little details whereby she rounds up the character into a sensible, yet sensitive, woman who cannot quite reconcile her love for Vincent with her need to run a house and family.

In the scene where Vincent declares his love for her, she sits immobile at the table, except for the occasional movement when she, seemingly compulsively, tidies the things on the table in front of her, highlighting the mental conflict she is undergoing.

This and myriad other moments during the course of the play lift her performance out of the commonplace into the sublime, and places her in the ranks of the great actresses of the British stage and it is worth the trip to Richmond just to see it and marvel.

By this, I by no means belittle her supporting cast; far from it, but they are, perforce, satellites revolving around her sun.

As Vincent, Ruben Brinkman manages the transition from brisk young businessman into lover and then unstable, religious dominated artist with conviction.

His Dutch accent, at times, made it difficult to understand the lines he was saying, but his body language conveyed their meaning satisfactorily.

It must be a difficult task to act in a language which is not your own, but his Vincent was believable in all stages of his transition.

He conveyed the mental intensity and turmoil of the frustrated artist which ultimately, although not in the play, led to his incarceration and death in an asylum with sensitivity and without being overly-dramatic.

One was left, at the end of the play, with a sense of pity for him, which was more due to his performance than the tragic figure he portrayed.

Sam Plowman, the other lodger with Mrs Loyer; the lover, and subsequent husband, of her daughter, was sympathetically played by Charlie Watts.

He is the counterweight to Vincent - a house decorator with a desire to be an artist, but who is sensible enough to give up his aspirations in that line in order to provide for his wife and child.

Mr Watts gives him just the right touch of solidity, tempered with understanding and humanity without losing credibility.

Vincent brings his sister, Anna, to join him as a lodger and she manages to antagonise the other characters by her misunderstandings, both of the language and their relationships.

Amy Darcy makes her an amusing foil to Emma Darwall-Smith's more sober Eugenie, at the same time underlining the mental instability which must have run in the Van Gogh family.

Eugenie is the one who is left at the end of the play to pick up the pieces brought about by her mother's breakdown after Vincent left her, at the same time as coping with her husband, Sam, and her children.

She was also the helpmate of her mother in running an Infants' school and the inheritor of her independent spirit. Emma Darwall-Smith, like her character, copes admirably and makes Eugenie the calm centre of the household throughout the play.

However excellent the supporting cast is, and excellent they are, it is Clare Higgins' night and she makes it incandescent. I wish I could spend more of them with Vincent in Brixton provided, of course, she was there as well.

Vincent in Brixton, by Nicholas Wright; Director, Richard Eyre;
Designer, Tim Hately; Lighting Designer, Peter Mumford; Sound Designer, Neil Alexander; Music, Dominic Muldowney; Associate Director, James Kerr. WITH: Clare Higgins, Ruben Brinkman, Emma Darwall-Smith, Charlie Watts, Amy Darcy. Producer Howard Panter for the Ambassador Group and Incidental Colman Tod present The National Theatre Production at Richmond Theatre, The Little Green, Richmond, Surrey. Box Office: 020 8940 0088

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