The Pitmen Painters
nytheatre.com review by Jason S. Grossman
October 2, 2010
Lee Hall follows up his megahit musical Billy Elliot with another working class rags-to-success story, The Pitmen Painters. Instead of dance as the art form of choice, Hall writes an endearing account of the Ashington Group, the real life group of British miners in the 1930s that studied painting and in turn became nationally renowned artists in their own right.
Manhattan Theatre Club exports the Live Theatre, Newcastle/National Theatre of Great Britain's co-production after three highly successful years in the UK, making some minor adjustments for American audiences along the way.
This is a play about gentlemen, dignified and proud, regardless of socio-economic delineations (the miners are always dressed in suits like their white-collar counterparts). Art was not readily accessible to men of blue-collar status in the rigid British class-structured society.
When the miners decide to hire a teacher so they can understand the "meaning of paintings" the culture clash is immediately evident. Their teacher realizes that in order for them to fully appreciate the art form, they must actually immerse themselves in the craft itself. As painters, they can explore their own creativity, their own individuality, and appreciate art in their own way.
The miners characteristically dedicate themselves fully to the task of painting. Eventually, they flourish and blossom. Their pieces are soon featured in prominent British galleries, and they become the talk of England.
Hall shrewdly addresses numerous themes effectively in the play. While the characters speak of the importance to express themselves as individuals on the canvas, they sound off frequently on the importance of the group. They're all cut from the same cloth, but breathe artistically as individuals. This issue is explored head-on when one of the miners, displaying genuine talent, is offered a sponsorship to become an artist full-time.
Further, as artists in this most unusual collective, what should be the focus of their art? Must they express themselves primarily to try to effect political change? Can the success of the miners help to transform the state of their working conditions in the mine?
Some liberties are taken by Hall in telling his story. The initially unsophisticated miners are in virtually no time well versed in artistic parlance and technically proficient with the paint brush. Such poetic license in telling a story that spans some 14 years is expected. And while the working class miners are generally portrayed with respect, there are the perfunctory "fish out of water" jokes throughout the play.
Max Roberts skillfully directs a cast that has been together since its opening at Live Theatre in Newcastle, UK three years ago. The presentation and set design are minimal with the play being situated mainly in the crude rustic art studio where the miners paint. In the short transitions between scenes, harsh sounds of working machinery (designed by Martin Hodgson) blast forth as the actors move set pieces into place. As the miners inspect and dissect each other's work, we actually see the original paintings thanks to the brilliant convention of having them projected on small screens above the action. Over the course of the play, a wealth of paintings adorn the periphery of the studio space. The overall presentation is simple, but its impact is quite effective.
The cast is marvelous with inspired performances throughout led by Christopher Connel as the most deeply drawn member of the miner group, Oliver Kilbourn. Connel infuses his portrayal with dignity and pride. Ian Kelly is equally strong as the nurturing, dedicated teacher Robert Lyon. Michael Hodgson scores major laughs repeatedly as a volatile dentist more interested in studying economics than art. Phillippa Wilson is compelling as a rich art patron. After three years on the London stage, the actors have clearly mastered their roles.
This all makes for an extremely satisfying albeit atypical entertainment experience, feeling somewhere between a play, history lesson, and art appreciation class.
The miners squabble about the meaning of each painting they create, rarely coming to an agreement. Ultimately, the play debates the meaning of art and its role in our lives. Art isn't simply for those who can afford it; it should be appreciated and debated by everyone.
As music and creative arts programs are being slashed across the board in American schools, isn't this a very worthy bit of theatre right here in this country?