The Pitmen Painters

Lee Hall, inspired by a book by William Feaver
Live Theatre, Newcastle
(2007)

Production photo

It was really very odd going to Live Theatre last night for The Pitmen Painters, rather like seeing and old friend who has had major plastic surgery and, although the original is still there and recognisable, the changes are so big that you feel disorientated - a kind of unfamilar familiarity.

What hasn't changed, however, is the company's commitment to the best of NE new writing and it is fitting that, since the last major production before the theatre's refurbishment, a revival of A Nightingale Sang by C P Taylor, which he wrote for Live in 1977, the first in the theatre's new incarnation should be a new play by Lee Hall, another major playwright who wrote Cooking With Elvis for the company.

Based on Guardian art critic Bill Feaver's book on the subject, The Pitmen Painters gives us a dramatised account of a group of miners from Ashington in Northumberland who, under the tutelage of Robert Lyon from King's College in Newcastle, began to paint and gained national fame. Hall takes the basic story and, obviously, makes changes, including reducing the number of members of the group and fictionalising the characters, but the play remains true to the historical truth. In a laughter-filled evening, his acutely observed characters present us with an exploration, not just of art and culture, but of class and community, politics and people.

The pictures they painted often take centre stage, being projected in whole and in details onto three screens hanging above the stage as well as being seen in their original form, but the main focus is on the men who painted them, on their desire to learn and to share in a culture which has been denied to them. Men who left school at eleven to work down the pit, they are hungry to learn: their thirst for learning and understanding is palapable and, although the decision to set up an art appreciation class in a scout hut is more the result of the fact that this was the only tutor they could get, they throw themselves into this new subject with determination.

Hall's characters can, at first sight, seem stereotypical but they are far from being so. These are men whom I remember from my childhood and, although initially we seem to have the Marxist, the hidebound committee man, the one who isn't very bright, the unemployed lad and other types, we very quickly begin to see the man beneath the surface, and they grow into real people with all the complexity of individual human beings.

Hall is helped by a superb cast and delicate direction. Director Max Roberts constantly reminds us (particularly in the first act) of the ever-present pit as, between scenes, we hear the siren which ends the shift, the banksman's buzzer and the rattle of the cage and the lights flash as the cage rises or drops. Moods are changed (particularly in the second act) by contemporary music and archive photographs appearing on the screens, complementing the set which is little more than Live's trademark side wall and a collection of folding wooden chairs.

The pitmen - Deka Walmsley as the committee man George, hidebound by (and often quoting from) the rulebook; Chris Connel deeply moving as the real talent of the group, Oliver Kilbourn; David Whitaker as the not terribly bright but enthusiastic Jimmy; Brian Lonsdale as George's young nephew who is desperate to get a job in the pit, Michael Hodgson as Marxist Harry Wilson, quoting Marx at the drop of a flat cap, and their tutor, Ian Kelly's Robert Lyon - are well supported by Lisa McGrillis as art student/life model Susan Parks, Phillippa Wilson as heiress Helen Sutherland and ARP warden (and George's wife) Vera and, with an impressive change of accent and body language, Brian Lonsdale as artist Ben Nicholson.

More than thirty years on, Live's new incarnation is beautifully celebrated with an excellent new play by one of the North East's best writers with a cast which features some of the best acting talent in the region.

"The Pitmen Painters" runs until 27th October

Philip Fisher reviewed the transfer of this production to the RNT Cottesloe. Peter Lathan then reviewed it on the first stop on its national tour at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan