Vincent In Brixton, Playhouse Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

When Clare Higgins accepted one of the three best actress awards she received for her performance in this production, she remarked that it was good to see acclaim for a play that contained neither sex nor drugs, but was about feelings. Watching this welcome return of the play to the West End, prior to a national tour, one can see that feelings do indeed permeate almost every speech.

The playwright, Nicholas Wright, has ingeniously imagined what might have occurred between the young Vincent van Gogh and his schoolteacher landlady Ursula Loyer when he lodged, as he did, in Brixton before he took up painting. Reading between the lines of letters home from Van Gogh, Wright has imagined a romance between the gauche young man and the older womanaching to inspire someone to do something remarkable.

There are so many reasons to see this play, not least, of course, Wright's witty and compelling narrative. There is laughter, largely at the tactless impetuousness of both the young Vincent, announcing his love in quick succession for both daughter and mother in his lodgings, and his even more gauche sister, a delightful cameo from Emma Handy, who also comes to lodge and never stops cleaning, sweeping and snooping. But it is uneasy laughter, with the audience fearing from the start of Richard Eyre's intense and moving production that it will all end in tears. It is not just the embryonic artists and landlady who can never be happy. Sam, the initially jovial fiancé of the landlady's daughter, may also never recover from seeing Van Gogh's early drawings and realising that his own ambitions to be an artist are, in his own eyes at least, worthless. His growing sense of lack of self-esteem, as he marries and fails to take up his place at art college, is well rendered in a moody and sad performance by Louis Cancelmi, even if the cockney accent of this American actor does grate a little. Sarah Drew as his wife, Eugenie, is touching as someone who also loses her early joie de vivre as she senses his unhappiness.

As Van Gogh, the Dutch actor Jochum Ten Haaf, head tilted forward, groping for meaning, manages a memorable portrait of both naive intensity and intense naivety, that would dominate the stage, were the other principal anyone other than Higgins. But so convincing is her melancholy disguised by matter-of-fact humour, her internal terror disguised by schoolmistress efficiency, her longing disguised by matter of factness, that it is impossible to take your eyes off her.

Awards are often rightly denigrated; but in her case it is marvellous that someone who is unlikely ever to be a household name is at least recognised in her own milieu as one of the greatest actresses on the British stage.

Many tributes have been paid during the past year to this production. But the biggest tribute of all must be that it was good enough to keep people in their seats on the first night in one of the most oppressively hot theatres that I can remember. Why the owners, the Ambassador Theatre Group, cannot dip into their annual profits to install proper air-conditioning is beyond me.

To 30 August (020-7369 1785) and then touring