Review: Vincent – A Portrait of van Gogh

Simon Arm-Riding as Vincent van Gogh. Photo by Roger Pattison
9 May 2016 @ 9.35 pm
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Simon Arm-Riding as Vincent van Gogh. Photo by Roger Pattison
Simon Arm-Riding as Vincent van Gogh. Photo by Roger Pattison

“Never could stand a blank canvas – it’s like it’s daring me to spoil its pristine skin” – Vincent van Gogh, from Vincent, by Olivia Jayne Newton.

Vincent: A Portrait of van Gogh, by York Footlights Theatre in collaboration with Infinite Riches Acting Company

Upstage Centre Youth Theatre

May 6, 2016

York Footlights website

Like most of us, Vincent van Gogh fascinates me: the short life. Madness. The art! That ear.

So, I eagerly arrived at Upstage Centre Youth Theatre for the show, Vincent: A Portrait of van Gogh, written by Olivia Jayne Newton.

I admit to some trepidation at the notion of a ‘musical’ Vincent (will there be a rhyme with ‘ear’?) (yes) but the songs are tuneful, performed brilliantly and briskly shift the action along. Some are beautiful and stand on their own, such as If Anything Should Happen, a moving tribute to a famous pair of brothers.

The story of Vincent van Gogh is told by an aged Johanna, Theo’s widow, 30 years after Vincent has died, as she interests an art dealer in Vincent’s work.

Johanna is played by pianist and writer Newton, who is excellent: indeed, the cast is very strong, from the charmingly young (Sylvie Morgan) to consummate professionals (everyone else).

A standout performance by Simon Arm-Riding
A standout performance by Simon Arm-Riding

Simon Arm-Riding is a standout as Vincent, except so is Richard Thirlwall as Theo; as is Sonia di Lorenzo as the tragic prostitute Sien, who also has the best scream I’ve heard in ages.

Lee Gemmell is perfect as a vicious priest, assorted art dealers, and Johanna’s brother; Keir Brown brittle and petulant as Gauguin; Alison Morgan delicate and anguished as Vincent’s one-time love, Kee. Jools Morgan is ethereal as the embodiment of Vincent’s muse, painted like Starry Night.

In addition to tackling multiple roles, the cast effectively portrays train station crowds, labouring peasants, and partygoers. In one clever scene, Vincent perches at the edge of the action to enable Theo to tell him about meeting Gauguin: “And so I said…”, Theo recounts to Vincent, and then Theo proceeds to re-enter the party he describes, to ask a question or greet a person.

The action seamlessly shifts from a tale being told by one brother to the other, to the actual party, and back again.

This is the story that we all know about Vincent, with details that we might not. Vincent’s moments of confusion and madness; replicas of some of his most famous works; and of course, that ear, are all here, on a sparse yet lovely set replete with sunflowers, starry skies, that well-known daybed.