Vincent in Brixton
Speculating on something as elusive as the particular incidents that spark creation in a latent talent is like trying to snare the breeze in a butterfly net; but that hasn't deterred Wright from figuratively racing, net in hand, across open dramaturgical fields. He imagines that the eager, 20-year-old Vincent (Jochum ten Haaf, also bowing stateside), toiling at international art dealer Goupil and Company, takes a room in the home of a certain Ursula Loyer (Higgins), a widow who also runs a boys' school. Initially attracted to Mrs. Loyer's daughter, Eugenie (Sarah Drew), and dismayed that she's attached herself to fellow boarder/would-be artist Sam Plowman (Pete Starrett), Vincent comes to realize it's Mrs. Loyer for whom he's developing his first passion.
Innocent as a vase of sunflowers, Vincent is nevertheless able to stop the woman's mourning of her late husband and submit to a young man's blandishments. Only when he goes to Holland for a brief family visit and returns with his termagant sister, Anna (Liesel Matthews), does he abruptly decide to abandon Mrs. Loyer. He sees her again a few years later when he's been dumped from employment at Goupil's Paris office and is contemplating a career as an itinerant preacher. (This is Wright's one try at suggesting the man's eventual madness.)
Wright, who's worked regularly with director Richard Eyre at England's Royal National Theatre (they also collaborated on the 20th-century theater overview Changing Stages), does have something concrete to go on here. Yes, van Gogh (rhymes with "fun loch," as the beamish boy explains here) did plunk himself down south of the Thames while working for the firm that also employed, in Paris, his brother Theo. It's on record that he stayed under the roof of a certain Mrs. Loyer and that, while there, he enjoyed getting to know London and Londoners. Beyond this, however, Wright is striking out on his own and, perhaps, is playing fast and loose with the facts. For instance: A look at the chronology published in Letters to His Brother Theo reveals that, although Vincent indeed stayed with the Loyers, it's the daughter who was called Ursula and her rejection of him seemed the cause of his quitting the 87 Hackford Road premises. This may be a small discrepancy but it suggests the extent to which Wright has been free with actual events, whatever they were.
Since the playwright doesn't seem to imply that his script is a docu-drama, he's probably within his rights in positing whatever he wants to posit. On that basis, he is and isn't successful. He comes up trumps with the May-December romance angle -- or, rather, May-September, with the man as the former and the woman as the latter. The Vincent van Gogh that Wright has written could be any youth who gradually realizes that he's drawn to a mature woman and who has the bright idea, as Vincent does here, to consult his Jules Michelet and quote aloud the following statement: "No woman is old, as long as she loves and is loved." (This kind of savvy, and Mrs. Loyer's warming to it, will probably lead to the play's having particular appeal for matinee ladies.)
While Wright does a nice job of showing how Vincent awakens (or re-awakens) Mrs. Loyer to her allure and how she reciprocates by introducing him to his sexual prowess, his depiction of Vincent taking steps towards becoming a great artist is less sure. To Wright's credit, he stops well short of conjuring the kind of madness that eventually led to van Gogh's slicing off part of his ear. On the other hand, he slips in little references to what are recognized as typical van Gogh subjects. During the action, for instance, Vincent asks Mrs. Loyer how he can help with the evening meal, and she says: "You can see to the potatoes." Is this a reference to "The Potato Eaters," one of the first noted van Gogh drawings?
The beauty of the mundane, which is not a bad description of van Gogh's earliest studies, is also implied in the dark kitchen where all of the plays comings-and-goings take place. Lighting designer Peter Mumford very likely looked through van Gogh's works for ideas about where to place light sources, et cetera. All of this quotidian detail culminates in two battered boots dropped on Mrs. Loyer's kitchen table for Vincent's notice. (Point of interest: The 1885 still life "A Pair of Shoes" is supposedly van Gogh's rendering of footwear he purchased in Paris and not related to any known Brixton clodhoppers.) Throughout, there is an implied invitation for the observer to await and pounce on possible "Aha!" moments; this unfortunately lends a comic air to the undertaking that the playwright never diffuses.