Melissa Blease reviews Looking at Lucian on at Ustinov Studio until Saturday 2 September

Lucian Freud: grandson of Sigmund (the “father of psychoanalysis”) Freud, brother of Clement (highbrow media polymath who, as it turned out, led a seriously seedy, sinister secret life) and legendary lothario rumoured to have fathered 40+ children. Oh, and he was also one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, known for his bold, hyper-real depictions of subjects including family members, supermodels Jerry Hall and Kate Moss, a notorious bank robber, a benefits agent and The Queen.

Whoops, sorry, there I go again: burying the actual Lucian Freud USP beneath a flurry of modern media-friendly factoids, with a healthy dollop of search engine-friendly celebrity names thrown in for good measure. But as Freud himself (the actual artist, not his famous granddad, nor any of his famous siblings and relatives) once said, “the longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes.” And although writer Alan Franks’ new play Looking at Lucian (another world premier for the Ustinov, directed by Tom Attenborough) offers plenty of abstractions to entertain us (caustic one-liners; witty observations; fascinating anecdotes; etc), it somehow fails to take us beneath the impasto of the artist as cause célèbre.

Carla Goodman’s set tells us all we need to know about the artist’s studio environment: paint-splattered walls, paint-soiled rags, paint-encrusted palettes, a dishevelled bed, half-finished glasses of wine balanced precariously next to half-finished plates of food – and a paint-smudged, dishevelled artist balanced precariously on the bridge between his real life and his public persona holding court centre stage.

Lucian (a charismatic performance from Henry Goodman) is “in conversation” with an unseen/unheard female sitter as he works on her portrait. As one would imagine, there’s much to discuss, from his family’s escape from the rise of Nazism (Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 and died in London in 2011) to his complicated relationship with his mother by way of his brief relationship with Greta Garbo, his alleged fling with poet Stephen Spender and the value (or otherwise) of art.

But the structure – though compelling in conception – is, at times, slightly too laboured to be truly convincing. In real life, we tend not to repeat questions back to whoever is talking to us before offering a response unless we’re recreating one of those lovely scenes from the Lassie series of films (“What’s that you’re saying, Lassie? Timmy fell down the well?”). And although Goodman is enough of a master of the art of his craft to offer a well-rounded, diligently humane recreation of the persona of the enthralling, erudite narcissist that Freud was known to be, it isn’t until the last moments of the drama that we are finally offered glimpses of an artwork with a little bit more flesh on the bones.

I’ve deliberately avoided offering a spoiler revealing anything more about the subtle twist that generates passion (and, in fact, poignancy) because, despite what might appear to be reservations, I would heartily recommend Looking at Lucian to fans of thoroughly decent theatre, let alone those fascinated by the artist himself – as Freud famously avoided giving interviews, any notion of an ‘insight’ into his personality is indeed fascinating.

But to quote Lucian once again before the review paint dries, “the character of the artist doesn’t enter into the nature of the art” – and I agree. In terms of theatrical composition, though, I was hoping for a more substantial contemplation of both the character of the artist and the nature of his art, rather than further corroboration of the cult of celebrity.

Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk

Main image: Nobby Clark