Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters tells the true story of ordinary men; miners facing extraordinary challenges in their lives. Dealing with danger and having to contend with the perils of the mines, they are given the chance to paint and to draw; exploring art in a way that they never thought was possible. These working class characters swap their spit and sawdust lives for the world of analysis.
On paper, this is an incredibly rich and and original tale, but somehow Hall loses his way and misses some golden opportunities to move the audience and give the narrative some drive.
Set between 1934 and 1947, you do not really feel the passing of time, even though intertitles constantly remind you of such. Another problem area, is the fact that you do not really see the men paint. So, unlike say, The Full Monty or Billy Elliot, there is no emotional payoff.
This is not to say that the basis of the play is not engaging. Watching these stoic, brave men bare their souls through art is touching. But you never see them at work or at play, so you never really get a sense of what truly makes them tick. Hall's book gives them lots to say, but very little to do. Therefore, there are many scenes whereby the men pontificate about art, but there is no real character development, allowing you to see how they reach these conclusions.
The performances are nuanced and filled with depth that the writing lacks. Christopher Connel's Oliver is trapped by other people's ideas of what he could be and his frustration at the end result is evident throughout his facial expressions and his excellent body language. Deka Walmsley's Jobsworth ,George Brown is also imprisoned, but by the restrictions he imposes on himself. David Whitaker is completely charming as the jovial Jimmy and he has some cracking lines, which he clearly relishes and delivers with panache.
Director Max Roberts brings pace to the first section of the play, which is incredibly funny and warm but due to Hall's repetitious writing, it then fails to say anything that you have not heard in the previous act. Garry McCann's vast set design adds scope to this uneven play and along with the wonderful performers, lifts the play through several lulls in the narrative.
Overall, The Pitmen Painters is a great true story of some very likable men expanding their minds through an avenue previously unknown to them, and it is filled with quick-fire humour. But, like a great painting which you are told you should like, although it is technically competent, you are left feeling unmoved, despite the best efforts of all those involved.