The Pitmen Painters, in Max Roberts’ perfectly pitched and acted production, is a wonderful piece of theatre: moving, uplifting and thought-provoking in equal measure. It is full of intellectual vigour and unflinching political candour. It tells the true story of a group of miners in the 1930s and 40s who, as part of their Workers’ Education Programme, find themselves in the company of one Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) who hopes to teach them art appreciation.
Quickly abandoning theory in favour of practice, the pitmen began to paint and create art for themselves. What emerges is a humorous, often deeply moving and timely look at the nature of art, class and politics. This is a play about the transformative power of art, about what it means to be an artist, to express something real about the world, and about how we decide what has value. It is also about aspiration and possibility.
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. Hall cleverly balances his passion for the politics, and his intellectual curiosity with the requirements of drama. Strong performances and deft writing keep these men from crossing the line into stereotype. These are deeply recognisable characters, who have authenticity and individuality. This is a play with some big ideas that is also about ordinary life.
Lyon encourages them to continue painting and their work is noticed by a local shipping heiress and art collector Helen Sutherland, (Phillippa Wilson). Soon they are staging exhibitions and going down to London to visit the Tate. Aspiration was a driving force behind the Workers’ Education Programme, and behind the pitmen painters, who dreamed of founding an ‘Ashington University’ and hoped that their art might exert some change in the world, might alter the way that working people regard their lives. Suddenly, they are able to document their lives in ways they hadn't thought possible: to record the 'little, tiny moments of being alive'. As Harry Wilson, (Michael Hodgson), robustly declares early in the play ‘Art has to say something, else it’s just decoration.’ That history was to prove them wrong stands as something of an index of cultural failure. The pits close, their world becomes part of the past, and we are all indicted.
Christopher Connel's portrayal of Oliver Kilbourn, is particularly strong. Connel plays him with great affection and vigour, never letting the character slide into sentimentality or caricature. Kilbourn’s struggle with the idea of himself as an artist is both compelling and complex. For the pitman painters, art is a collective enterprise, a community-based, authentically driven process of creation. It is not about individuality but about community. It is about belonging in the world.
Brian Lonsdale, who plays both the Young Lad and Ben Nicholson offers some superb character observations in his roles. He acts with great subtlety and authenticity.
Gary McCann’s set, reflecting the characters themselves, is honest and unaffected, providing a properly modest space for reproductions of the ‘real’ paintings to be projected. The scene changes clang with the noises of the miners’ daily lives: the pit changes, the air-raid sirens. This disruptive intrusion of their reality serves to remind us that their creative enterprise takes place at the heart of their noisy, challenging and socially constructed lives.
This is a hugely enjoyable production not just because it makes us laugh, which it does frequently, but because it encourages us to think deep and hard about art, about class, about society and the role of the artist within it. Above all, it succeeds in making its audience feel passionate, alive and engaged with the world and that is surely one of the purposes of great art. Absolutely superb.