The Pitmen Painters

Lee Hall, inspired by a book by William Feaver
Co-production with Live Theatre, Newcastle
RNT Cottesloe Theatre
(2008)

Production photo

Rather than the coal that the Pitmen of the title dig up, Nicholas Hytner has struck gold with this new play by Lee Hall.

Based on a true story, the co-production with Newcastle's Live Theatre is a kind of cross between Hall's most famous creation, Billy Elliott, and less predictably, Yasmina Reza's Art.

While allowing his miners and their mentors to engage in Shavian debate for not far short of three hours, Hall ensures that The Pitmen Painters is constantly funny but also full of soul.

The scene is set early, in a hut in Ashington, a mining village in Northumberland. There five men under the auspices of the Workers' Education Association gather to commence a course in art appreciation.

For a tanner each, they are to be addressed by a professor from Newcastle University. Robert Lyons, played by Ian Kelly, is not quite as billed but, after the initial comedy of misunderstandings resulting from accents that are so different as virtually to constitute separate languages, the cultural divide is approached and, ultimately, he learns as much as his charges from the interaction.

These men from down the local pit (and a dental surgery) have never seen, let alone appreciated, art. Their deaf ears must therefore be opened by the practical method of creating their own art.

Soon enough, they are criticising each other, almost to the extent of fisticuffs, and within a couple of years hobnobbing with the gentry and exhibiting as the Ashington Group.

Five men of varied personalities will inevitably go in different directions and Hall does a good job in balancing caricature with real personalities. Designer Gary McCann works hard too, in creating dozens of art works painted by the men.

The quintet are led by Deka Walmsley's George who has the shop steward mentality of a true literalist, while Harry, played by Michael Hodgson, spouts Marx and believes that the only purpose of art is to advance the lot of the working man. The unnamed Young Lad (Brian Lonsdale) is a pacifier destined to die in the War but it is the other two who are the finest creations.

Christopher Connel portrays Oliver as a sensitive miner with hidden intellectual depths that Lyons and rich patron Mrs Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson) bring to the fore. He is given an impossible choice between the life that he knows and a brave new world as an artist and, after delivering a marvellous speech, chooses the wrong road for honourable reasons.

Little Jimmy is the simplest and most obtuse man that you could meet but, from 10 years old, he has not missed a day of the last 40 years working deep underground. David Whitaker's character doesn't understand much, but his artistic talent while rather primitive is the most popular of the lot and he probably gets more pleasure from this experiment than any of his peers - and gives us more laughs in a lovely, understated performance.

Lee Hall succeeds by repeating the Billy Elliott formula. He takes miners and shows how they can escape the drudgery of their normal lives through the medium of art and are ultimately unified by the genius of Van Gogh.

By the end, you really care about every one of these men and delight in the opportunity that they were given to experience at least a taste of the higher things of life. You also get the chance to enjoy some great debates on the lot of the working man, the nature of art and blobs.

It is to be hoped that this heart-warming play about the Northern working classes sells out in the Cottesloe and subsequently gets a richly-deserved opportunity to appear on one of the National's bigger stages.

Peter Lathan reviewed the premiere of this production at Live Theatre, Newcastle and then reviewed it on the first stop on its 2009 national tour at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Reviewer: Philip Fisher