The Pitmen Painters

Lee Hall
Live Theatre Newcastle and National Theatre
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
(2009)

Production photo

Lee Hall's latest play is a fictionalised account of real events in a mining community in the north east of England in the 1930s.

In 1934, a number of Ashington miners who had studied various subjects as a group in the mine's social club between gruelling ten-hour shifts in the pits hired artist Robert Lyon, in the mistaken belief that he was a professor at Newcastle University, to teach an art appreciation class. After showing a few slides of paintings and gabbling his way through some jumbled art history making references that mean nothing to them, he changes tack and decides to teach them art appreciation by getting them to paint their own pictures.

Lyon becomes quite taken by the simple honesty of the works created by these untutored amateurs, and through him the men gain notoriety, showing their art in gallery exhibitions and meeting some of the leading artists and art collectors of the day.

The parallels with Hall's screenplay for Billy Elliot go beyond the working class north east setting. The same sharp wit is also evident, but the theme of working class men entering an artistic world that is completely alien to them and to which they feel they could never belong, despite encouragement from others and obvious talent, is very strong in both scripts.

There are times when the play becomes a little bitty and where a lesser production may show a few cracks in the script, but Live Theatre's artistic director Max Roberts keeps perfect control over the pace of the production so the attention is never allowed to drift.

There are some strong, sharply-defined characters both in the writing and in the excellent performances by every member of the cast. Ian
Kelly is the dithering but ultimately encouraging tutor Lyon. Christopher Connel is the proud miner with the strongest interest in learning about art who is offered a big break in the art world that he finds so enticing but beyond someone of his background. Michael Hodgson is Harry who was gassed in the First World War and quotes Marx at the drop of a hat, whereas Deka Walmsley as George Brown, the group's leader, prefers to quote the club rule-book whenever he suspects a potential rule breach.

David Whitaker is pragmatic Jimmy, who never really gets the more abstract or emotional concepts about art but always has a go at the exercises and is the first to sell a picture. Brian Lonsdale is just billed in the programme as 'young lad' who is looked down on by the rest of the group as he is unable to get a job in the mines despite frequent attempts and remains unemployed. The cast is completed by Lisa McGrillis as life model and artist Susan and Phillippa Wilson as P & O heiress and art collector Helen Sutherland.

This NT and Live Theatre collaboration has produced a superbly polished piece of theatre without a weak or even a merely adequate performance in the whole cast. A lot of scenes are very funny indeed, but there is also a lot about it that is moving and uplifting. Ultimately the message is about the transforming potential of art for anyone who takes part in it beyond the apparently closed world of art dealers, collectors, critics and art school graduates.

Reviewer: David Chadderton