The Pitmen Painters @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Christopher Connel
Michael Hodgson
Ian Kelly
Brian Lonsdale
Lisa McGrillis
Deka Walmsley
David Whitaker
Phillippa Wilson

directed by
Max Roberts
Lee Hall’s entertaining and thought-provoking play traces the history of the Ashington Group, a group of miners who took up painting and made a stir in the art world, from their beginnings in 1934 through to the Nationalisation of the mines. What begins as a straightforward class clash comedy quickly evolves into something far more resonant, a play about art and what it means to people, about the power of self-expression.

A group of pitmen sign up for an art appreciation class. Their tutor Robert Lyon, having made little headway showing them slides of Renaissance masterpieces, decides he can better teach them about art by encouraging them to create it themselves. First he gets them to produce linotypes then proper paintings. From early on it is clear that many of these men, who have been working down the pits since they were children and whose formal education was extremely limited, have real talent.

Lyon encourages them to continue painting and their work is noticed by a local shipping heiress and art collector. Soon they are staging exhibitions and being invited down to London to visit the Tate. But what drives them to keep painting, to keep producing work, is not their unexpected success, their increasing recognition by the art world, but their sheer love of art, of the process of creation. A window has been opened for them. They are able to document their lives in a way they hadn’t thought possible, to record the ‘little, tiny moments of being alive,’ to create something capable of lasting.

First performed at Newcastle’s Live Theatre, Hall’s play, based on a book by William Feaver, manages to be a drama of ideas without sacrificing character. Strong performances and deft writing keep these men from crossing the line into stereotype. Hall has reduced the original group of near thirty to just five: Harry, the staunch Marxist; George, the officious committee man who lives by the rulebook, his nephew, an unemployed young man desperate for work in the pit and Jimmy, enthusiastic and good-hearted if a little slow on the uptake. Chris Connel’s portrayal of Oliver Kilbourn, the most talented of the group, is particularly affecting. His struggle to come to terms with the idea of himself as an artist when he has been a pitman all his life and a good one at that, is compelling. When he is offered a stipend to work full time as a painter, he is torn between the desire to do something he has come to love and the fear of leaving behind all he has known. Eventually the shift in identity that this would require proves too much for him.

Hall takes particular pains to drive home how open these men were to the world of art, how they came to embrace it. On a visit to an exhibition of Chinese art, where Lyon saw mere folk art and dismissed it as such, the men saw something profound in its simplicity, something not totally unrelated from their own lives. Their excitement and enthusiasm on first encountering the work of Van Gogh is infectious. In his programme notes, Hall writes that at people at early in the last century “were aspirational about High Art. They not only felt entitled, but felt a duty to take part in the best that life has to offer in terms of art and culture. That 50 years later I could write Billy Elliot, a story about the incomprehension of a mining community towards a similar aspirant to High Culture, seems to me some sort of index of a political and cultural failure.”

That assessment is a tad harsh, I think, a bit dismissive of a generation, but it’s easy to see where he’s coming from and these are sentiments that echo through the play’s poignant conclusion. The men dream of establishing an Ashington university, and hope that their art might exert some change in the world, might alter the way that working people regard their lives, but of course this does not happen. The pits close and this world of theirs becomes part of the past.

Max Roberts’ production loses impetus in the second half; after all these are real lives with no neat conclusions, so some of the dramatic drive falls away. But Hall has made you care about these characters, so this hardly matters. The only real problem for me was that Robert Lyon, played by Ian Kelly, remained something of an enigma. I would have liked it if Hall had dug a little deeper into Lyon’s relationship with Kilbourn. As it stands we get one, admittedly powerful, scene between the two men where we gain a sense of the mixture of pride tinged with subtle envy that he felt towards the group in the end Lyon would land a prestigious job at Edinburgh University as a result of his involvement with them.

This is a hugely enjoyable production not just because it makes you laugh, though it does that frequently, but because it makes you think deep and hard about art, about class, about society and the role of the artist within it. It does this without turning its characters into mouthpieces for particular points of view, and it succeeds in making it audience feel passionate, alive and engaged with the world.

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