In Paris, between 1888 and 1917, the year of his death, Edgar Degas tutors and berates the gifted young artist Suzanne Valadon, an acrobat and model who is also a single parent with an alcoholic mother.
Their tempestuous but always platonic relationship is the subject of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s neatly compiled new play, but it lacks the fire of real drama and Matthew Lloyd’s dutiful production doesn’t tell us anything urgently new or mind-bending.
Valadon - played with a lot of Parisian vim and venality by Sarah Smart - had lots of famous lovers, was the first woman to paint a male nude, and represented an early Tracey Emin tendency to trade on her own celebrity.
And Degas is unsurprisingly portrayed by Henry Goodman as an irate anti-Semite (falling out with his best friends, the Halevy family, siding against Zola in the Dreyfus affair) who berates his protégée for her insistence on painting when she has a natural quality of observing the line in her drawing, a line Degas describes as both ferocious and supple.
Their tiffs are discreetly supervised by Selina Cadell’s wise old bird of a housekeeper and enacted in the full space of the Arcola.
The provenance of the old carpet factory is brilliantly exploited by designer William Dudley in his hanging, gauze like reproductions of a dozen or so great Degas paintings and a washing line of Valadon’s scrawny, boldly outlined, naked, non-sensual bodies.
She displays her own nakedness for one of Degas’ bathers with a towel, mesmerizing him with the beauty of her back, but he otherwise spurns her overtures as both model and mistress.
He gives her lessons in copper plate etching in the studio – Dudley has created the whole paraphernalia of the atelier around the fixed pillars, staining the floor with paint – and each of the scenes has a painterly characteristic, either of tone or composition.
The ending is a strangely poignant echo Cyrano attended by Roxane, as the old painter subsides in the rubble of his beloved city and Valadon declares her undying devotion.
But the scene is a long time coming and doesn’t stir the heart, any more than does the housekeeper’s revelation that her real work, apart from the cleaning and cooking, was as exciting as, well, watching paint dry.