With sell out seasons at Live Theatre and the National under its belt and a Broadway run mooted for next year, I was beginning to feel like I’d missed out. Was I the only person left who had not seen The Pitmen Painters?
Fortunately the show has returned to the North East this week, pitching up at the Theatre Royal until Saturday.
Taking its inspiration from the book by William Feaver, Lee Hall’s drama is based on the real life Ashington Group – a collection of miners who, in 1934, hired Robert Lyon, Master of Painting at Armstrong College, to teach an art appreciation evening class.
Getting nowhere fast with art theory, the sessions soon turned practical and the men astonished the wider world with their paintings. Suddenly on the radar of patrons of art, the works were exhibited, photographed and debated over. All the while these ‘pitmen painters’ worked down the mines daily – just as they had always done.
There was a tangible sense of anticipation in the opening night audience. Playing to a home crowd may have added a certain special something, and expectations are always high from the writer of such hits as ‘Billy Elliott’ and ‘Cooking With Elvis’.
At first Hall seemed to be re-treading familiar ground. The gruff miners thrust in to the ‘hoity-toity’ world of art appreciation, their well spoken teacher struggling to grasp the thick Ashington accents – ponies and peonies are confused and hilarity ensues.
But as the drama unfolds the story of these miners and their Group becomes absorbing, provoking and ultimately very moving. It tackles big themes head on – class, culture, opportunities, ‘what is art?’- and a lack of sentimentality keeps it grounded.
At one point wealthy patron Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson) comments “from a distance we are all stereotypes” and initially the characters seem like broad archetypes. There’s the bossy one, the stupid one, the talented one, the political one, the young one – perhaps born from condensing the 20+ real-life miners in to five. These early misgivings are soon forgotten, however, as we see their engaging progression as artists, individuals and Group members.
It is an ensemble piece with all of the cast turning in strong performances. At its heart, however, is the excellent Christopher Connel as Oliver Kilbourn - the pitman with the most artistic flair and whose talent brings with it difficult decisions.
The simple staging represents a multitude of locations, while the excellent lighting and sound between scenes gives some sense of the darkness and noise of life in the mines. This nicely contrasts with the stillness of the paintings - fascinating in themselves and used to great effect, projected on large screens throughout.
Compelling and engaging, The Pitmen Painters returns to the region dragging along with it a huge weight of expectation.