One-woman show Lost in Blue, the gripping story of a man in a coma as told by the daughter who helped to put him there, comes to London’s Lion & Unicorn Theatre from 15 to 26 February 2022. In the second of our two-part interview, writer and performer Debs Newbold discusses how Vincent Van Gogh’s art inspired both the play and her own experiments with painting. Time to get booking!
Through the prism of Vincent van Gogh’s famous late work, Bedroom in Arles, Debs explores the phenomenon of living life in a coma, issues around end of life, and the healing power of art.
Annie is amazing at art. When she was three years old, her life was skewed off-course. On her 18th birthday, it threatens to happen again. Where do people go when they are in a coma? What happens when a family disagrees about how long to let a loved one hold on? What would van Gogh say about loss if you hung out with him in his room at Arles? And what do pigeons have to do with it?
Lost in Blue is written and performed by Debs Newbold and directed by John Wright, with sound design is by Kieran Lucas.
What are your highlights from previous runs of Lost in Blue?
The Edinburgh Festival in 2016 was amazing. I was on at Summerhall, and I had that very classic Edinburgh experience you hear about where at first, and for ages, you are playing to 10 or 12 people and then, slowly, the word spreads. It is hard to explain what I do – although I am getting better at it these days – and seeing physical proof that people were beginning to really get it was just brilliant. The reviews were all 4 and 5 stars across the board. I was so chuffed. I ended up being presented with a Summerhall award at the end of the run, too, which was completely unexpected.
I performed it in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe for an invited audience, which was very special. I have performed a couple of my shows there and the space is at once really intimate and totally epic. And I remember, when I performed it at the Roundhouse, being tickled pink to be there because I had seen my hero Patti Smith play there only the year before (albeit in the bigger room!).
The more I have performed this show the more I have learned about what I have written. It is always that way; you ask any performer. It takes many performances over a run or a tour to really know your material. In this phase, where I am re-rehearsing it with John after a gap of four and a half years, we are finding depths in the story that were always there, waiting to be picked up, but that we never saw, even after 100 performances. It is really fun, the process of opening it up again and finding new jokes, new moments of pathos, new levels of meaning in something I have already written.
How did working on this piece inspire you to become a painter yourself?
Once I knew that the story was about a girl who wanted to be a painter and that Van Gogh was in it, I knew I had to study oil painting a bit, to get a better idea of what I would be talking about. I did a short course at Art Academy, London and then when I moved up North, I carried it on, studying under the abstract landscape artist Dominic Vince at Northlight Art Studio for three years once a week.
My painting is still in its infancy; I just don’t have the same depth of understanding of paint as a medium that I do for theatre and writing. But, I am loving learning. Oils and abstract suit me really well because I am used to being in the thicket with no obvious way out.
I am comfortable with there being many directions in which to take something. I hope to get better as I get older, but that will take practice. You should check out Dominic’s stuff though, because it is incredible.
Describe Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles. Is it a masterpiece?
I would not claim to be enough of an expert on art to judge whether something is a masterpiece or not. But I do know I love that painting. He did three versions of it, all slightly different. It is like performance: each night you are subtly different.
The room has a strangeness to it that runs like a current under the reassuringly everyday appearance of it: the red blanket, the green shutters, the pillow, the table. I don’t know how he did that. I think a lot of it is in his choice of colour. The three different versions have subtly different colour clashes going on.
I love the way a clash of two things makes you see something new in a work of art. It can be a clash of colours, of images, or the clash of a scene and a sound. That scene in Reservoir Dogs, for example, the man having his ear sliced off to a jaunty faux-country song.
I just realised I have brought up an example of ear-harming in a 1990s film as a response to a question about Van Gogh’s 1888 painting of his bedroom. Vincent was living in that room when he did his ear, in fact. Anyway, it is a beautiful painting and seemed the perfect place to put the character of Paul, who is a painter confined to a single bed, deep in a coma.
It’s a challenging time for theatre. Why did you want to do Lost in Blue now?
People need stories. I know I do. And this one is about both loss and hope. Loss and hope are the dual realities we always live with, but I think that’s been especially true over these last two years. The show is also about how important art is, for all of us, regardless of our backgrounds, our education, how happy or sad we are. It feels really powerful to do a piece like that at a time when the very validity of art has been publicly challenged by the government, and at a time when circumstances have made it hard for us to go out and experience art together.
Also, it is funny, this show, and goodness knows we need a good laugh. I love this show for the way it invites an audience to laugh out loud and have a good cry all within the space of 85 minutes and all in the same room, together. We need that too, right now, I think.
And why at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre specifically?
I am really excited to bring it to the Lion & Unicorn for several reasons: first, the space: it is an intimate cocoon of a black box theatre. A quiet, tiny oasis of possibility slap bang in the middle of one of the busiest parts of central London. It is the perfect space for a show like mine and it exists as a result of the audacious, risk-taking, theatre-loving ethos that underpins our whole industry. It is, in short, a brilliant fringe theatre.
Secondly, I am excited because they invited me. In a world where artists have to hustle and strive for most things, to be invited is the most amazing feeling – it makes you fearless.
Also, I remember doing one of the first pieces I ever made there, years ago, for a scratch night run by Tassos Stevens. I did it alongside two close friends; David Humeau and Carlos Manuel Vesga, and it was one of the funniest, most ridiculous nights of my life with two people I loved. So, there are sentimental reasons too!
Why should audiences see Lost in Blue?
Because you will have a great night. I promise. It’s a good story. It has pigeons in it. And a bit about The Flintstones. Plus, a gripping live-or-die narrative, a lot of sound-tech and Van Gogh talking in a Brummie accent. People gave it brilliant reviews, none of whom were paid or bribed. And the award-winning comic and theatremaker Ruth E Cockburn called it “Daniel Kitson meets Julie Walters”, and everyone likes either one or both of those two, don’t they?
Lost in Blue runs from 15 to 26 February 2022 at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, 42-44 Gaisford St, London NW5 2ED, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm. Tickets £14 (concessions £12). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!