The Pitmen Painters
Co-production between National Theatre and Live Theatre, Newcastle
Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, and touring
The writer, Lee Hall, has put together a couple of hours of history stretching from the early 1930s to the late eighties in which he sets out the development of an evening class of a group of North Country miners seeking an educational break from their hard life and an interest in something other than coal.
They invite a professor of art studies from Durham University to talk to them, and, after confessing he is not a professor and not from the University, he sets them a task of understanding and interpreting themselves using the mechanisms of art by showing them his set of slides of the early masters. I do not expect that reading this paragraph will be found helpful, and strangely enough, neither do they.
Nevertheless, they gelled into a productive group who had a go at painting what they were familiar with, and then sat around and considered what each had produced. The interplay of their comments, mainly in broad Geordie, characterised by their varying personal commitments, one running the local Workers Eductational Authority group (Deka Walmsley), another staunchly socialist (Michael Hodgson) attacking the attitudes of the reactionary remainder, while the youngest (Brian Lonsdale), who had never been able to get a job in the pit, only came into his own when war was declared in 1939. And they all began to produce a range of painitngs of the pit work, a whippet, and other subjects duly appraised by Mr Lyon, their teacher (Ian Kelly).
This alll male group were surprised when their teacher introduced a young lady (Lisa McGrillis) who was to provide a nude model for them to really get their teeth into - if that is the right expression - and their horror stricken behaviour provided a surprising interlude, ended by a brief nude apparition as the lights went out.
The tension of the play was the pressure placed on Oliver (Christopher Connel) who had suffered greatly in his own young life and was left without any family, to accept sufficient money to pay him more than he was earning down the pit to allow him to spend his time painting. This offer, seemingly munificent, was made by the local lady of the manor, Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson) who thought she was offering him a tremendous opportunity to get away from mining and to develop himself as a painter. She was truly dumbfounded at his reply to her offer.
This is a complex story, of which the play forms a fraction of the life led by this extraordinary group of miners who did indeed develop their talents and become famous in their lifetimes, not only as painters but as artists with a distinctive undestanding of the meaning of art and its effect on the individual.
This team of actors and the Director (Max Roberts) have been together for nearly three years of the showing of this play and they supply a thought-provoking evening stimulating much about the place of art in the working man's life as well as the political pressures suggested during the period of latent socialism ending in the nationalisation of the mines after the War.
Touring to Theatre Royal Norwich; Theatre Royal Bath; Theatre Royal Plymouth
Reviewer: Philip Seager