The Pitmen Painters
Live Theatre Newcastle & National Theatre co-production
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Lee Hall is best known as the writer of the film and subsequent musical Billy Elliot. Set during the miners' strike of mid-1980s Billy Elliot explores the resistance a miner's son from northern England faces when he pursues his passion for ballet. The musical has been a huge success since it opened in the West End in 2005. More recently Hall has returned to a similar theme in his play The Pitmen Painters.
The Pitmen Painters is based on a book by of the same name by art critic William Feaver, which chronicles the remarkable story of the Ashington Group in the 1930s. Made up of miners, the group grew out of the art appreciation class at the Ashington branch of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) which was tutored by Robert Lyons, a painter and teacher from Durham University. The unique style and talent of some of the group's members was quickly recognised and the men received widespread recognition and acclaim in the arts world.
The Pitmen Painters begins during the first art appreciation class at the Ashington WEA and introduces us to the ragtag collection of miners who have signed up for the course. They include George Brown (Deka Walmsley), who is a stickler for the unions rules and regulations, and Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), a staunch communist. Lyon (David Leonard) quickly realises that it will be near impossible to teach a traditional art appreciation course to a group of men who have never even seen a painting before, so instead encourages the men to start producing their own art as a "hands-on" exploration.
Lyon is impressed by the quality and originality of the work the men produce, in particular that of Oliver Kilbourn (Trevor Fox) who takes a keen interest and travels to Newcastle to borrow art books from the library and visit Lyon at the university. Lyon invites Helen Sutherland (Joy Brook), heiress to the P&O cruise line and prolific collector and patron of the arts, to meet the group. Sutherland is so impressed by the men's work that she demands to buy a still life painted by Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker) on the spot, paying him almost two weeks mining wages for the piece.
Sutherland, like Lyon, recognises Kilbourn's unique talent, believing he can think like an artist. She offers to pay him a weekly wage, allowing him to give up mining and focus full time on painting and improving his technique. While Kilbourn is tempted by the idea, he ultimately refuses, fearing that it will cause a division between him and his mates down the mine. Kilbourn grows to regret his decision, confiding in Lyon that he threw away the chance to better himself and become a fully fledged artist. Lyon dismisses this though, telling Kilbourn that long after they are both dead people will be building galleries to display Kilbourn's art. Lyon's prediction turned out to be accurate with the Woodhorn Museum now permanently exhibiting a collection of Kilbourn's work.
The action of the play mainly takes place within the weekly art class and Hall's script portrays the men's many misunderstandings and disagreements with affectionate humour. The Pitmen Painters opened at the Live Theatre, Newcastle in 2007 before transferring to the National Theatre. It has since had a run on Broadway and is now in the midst of a national tour before movong into the West End in October. This production still features some of the original cast.
It is an interesting progression from Billy Elliot for Hall and explores many of the same issues and stereotypes that surround the working class and art. However it is also a sad indictment on modern society that 50 years before Billy Elliot there was seemingly more importance and value placed on the inclusivity of art. As Hall himself says "culture is something we share and we are all the poorer for anyone excluded from it".
"The Pitmen Painters" is at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry until the 17th of September and touring.
This production was most recently reviewed by Ray Brown in Leeds
Reviewer: Iain James Finlayson