The Pitmen Painters

Lee Hall
Co-produced by Live Theatre Newcastle and National Theatre
Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds, and touring
(2011)

The Pitmen Painters production photo

The Pitmen Painters opened at Live Theatre Newcastle four years ago and since then has played London, Broadway and toured the UK. It still sparkles like a newly varnished oil painting.

Set in the Thirties and Forties, Lee Hall's play tells the true story of a group of miners from Ashington in the North East who attend a Workers' Education Association course in art history. Today they are a significant part of British art history.

Inspired by and based on Wlliam Feaver's book (also called The Pitman Painters), Lee Hall's script is a joy. It delves into the innocence, cynicism, idealism and endeavour of a group of working men who mainly left school at eleven or twelve and spent their working days in the dark, dangerous, mucky hell that was a coal mine.

Few are as interesting as those with little schooling and a lot of intelligence. Hall captures banter, debates and impassioned flare-ups with an adroitness that is at times breathtaking. Money and influence might be piled up in one class - intelligence and talent isn't. The Pitmen Painters is a celebration of the extraordinary nature of 'ordinary people'.

The simple set features fold out wooden chairs, a couple of easels, and a screen or two upon which the pictures and various bits of text are projected. Scenes are, at first shockingly, interspersed by the horrific clatter and squeal of life underground. And the set stands in for the classroom, a railway station, galleries and so on. Five pitman painters and their posh tutor meet each week, to compare and critique each other's latest painting.

The play starts with what might well be a conscious homage to Trevor Griffiths' Comedians as the class assembles and each character is established. Here is George Brown, (played by Deka Walmsley) the decent, conscientious but bumptious class representative (and all ex-WEA tutors will recognise him!) attempting to enforce WEA regulations to the last jot and tittle of WEA. Then Oliver Kilbourn (Trevor Fox), a raw boned innocent whose decency and talent would humble all but the most stupid and or arrogant. Little Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker) is a comedic foil, with his 'blob' painting and interest in the female form, 'Young Lad' (Brian Lonsdale), unemployed and desperate (short of six pence to pay his weekly fee). Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), the Marxist dental mechanic, gassed in the trenches so he can't go underground. According to art critic William Feaver, Wilson was one of the most intelligent men he ever met.

And then there's the tutor, Robert Lyon, played to the verge of 'of posh silly ass' by David Leonard. The cast is completed by Viktoria Kay playing Susan Parks, a young student paying her way through art school by working as a model, and Joy Brook playing Helen Sutherland, local toff and patron.

This fine telling of the story of the Ashington Group is played as a balancing act, on the high wire, verging on stereotype, verging on patronisation, verging on sentimentality. But superb script, acting and direction ensure that this production never topples over. Instead we have a heart-breaking mix of laughter and tears; sweet sadness, for we know what the future holds.

As the play draws to a close notes appear on the screen: the pit closure... the Labour Pay sell-out, the rewriting of the Party's constitution. The pitmen painters stayed with their dream, common ownership of their work, but our insular values moved on. This play will jog many memories. Perhaps it will stimulate progress.

Oliver Kilbourn was the last to die, twenty years ago. By then he had handed the paintings of the pitmen to Wansbeck District Council. You can still see them at Woodhorn, Ashington. If you can - see the play. And see the paintings.

Last words to Lee Hall, taken from his programme note: 'That the Group managed to achieve so much unaided and unabetted should remind us that dumbing down is not a prerequisite of culture being more accessible. That is a lie perpetrated by those who want to sell us shit. Culture is something we share and we are all the poorer for anyone excluded from it.'

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at Guildford. It was also reviewed by Steve Burbridge at Darlington.

Reviewer: Ray Brown