The story of the Ashington Group painters as told in Lee Hall’s play, based on William Feaver’s wonderful book, is one of the most interesting in British painting, and this glorious production – a clear companion piece to Hall’s Billy Elliot, a musical fable of art and the working class – is at last deservedly enshrined in the West End.
The Pitmen Painters opened at Live Theatre in Newcastle in 2007, came to the National’s Cottesloe in the following year, stepped up to the Lyttelton in 2009, visited New York and has just completed a nationwide tour.
And yet Max Roberts’ production, with four of the original cast, seems, well, fresh as paint and varnished to perfection. The group of sharply characterised miners is supplemented by a dental “mechanic” and an unemployed lad, a role doubled by the excellent Brian Lonsdale with Ben Nicholson, who treats the new arrivals on the art scene with crushing condescension.
What sounds as though it might be clunky and formulaic – a study of evening art classes transforming the lives of ordinary men into those of skilled practitioners – burns instead with clear-eyed intensity; Ian Kelly’s impassioned, but ultimately defecting, tutor from Newcastle (en route to a top academic post) inevitably opens the doors on which the buyers and dealers are knocking.
The group is taken up by a shipping heiress, Helen Sutherland, played with cut-glass cool by Joy Brook, who faces down the resentment of the patronised as represented by Trevor Fox’s smouldering Oliver Kilbourn – himself as monumental as a Henry Moore sculpture — in the play’s best scene.
But it’s characteristic of the cleverness of Hall’s writing that Helen both appreciates the work and can express a devastating critique of it. The smart dialogue of the play is complemented in Gary McCann’s design by a constant projected display of the paintings themselves, which include mining and meeting scenes, whippets and flat caps.
You’ve only to think of Moore on one side and William Roberts and Stanley Spencer on the other to see how these paintings fit somewhere in between and fall some way short of greatness. But that’s not the point: this is a wonderful play about art in people’s lives and dreams, and the difference it makes to them.
And in that respect, The Pitmen Painters joins a pantheon of British drama – David Storey’s Life Class, Pam Gems’s Stanley, Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s The Painter – that gives meaningful words to the distillation of pictures.
The scene where the men stare dolefully at a white circle on a white square painted by Nicholson and go through the process of bafflement, wonder, dismissal and appreciation is worth the price of admission alone; it’s the scene Yazmina Reza forgot to write in Art, and it sums up the magic and the mystery of going half-way towards something you don’t understand – and doing something about it.