A vivid and affecting portrait of Northern England in the 1930s, Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters cleverly blends class, art and politics. Its amusing and informed script colours the lives of its stoic, disenfranchised characters with all of the depth and detail of a masterpiece, drawing recognisable sketches of a passed era and the unfulfilled hopes of a generation.
In a dark and grimy Ashington village hall, five working-class Newcastle men meet to better themselves through the arts. Snatched from the classrooms and forced to work in the pits in their childhood, they hire an Art Historian to teach them the cultural lessons which their upbringing and class denied them. Their talents, raw and unrestrained, allow them to experience the pleasure of creation, opening a rich debate on artistic form, the British class divide and the power of community.
Max Roberts's cast is uniformly excellent. As artist and tutor Robert Lyon, David Leonard is a model of poise and decorum, carrying himself like a senior lecturer in the fine arts and promenading amongst the hall's grubby easels with refined diction and a sophisticated air.
Trevor Fox's performance as Oliver Kilbourn, the most exceptional of the painters, is perhaps the production's greatest. A representative of "all who toil beneath the earth", he quietly evokes an internalised class war, burning with defiance and loyalty in the play's most fiery scene and turning to ash with regret in missed opportunities.
From a somewhat over-egged opening, Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters grows into a well-grounded piece which mines the human soul and finds something more valuable than oil on canvas.