Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall’s Pitmen Painters, inspired by William Feaver’s book, is a gentle but stirring exploration of the artistic awakenings of a group of struggling Geordie miners in the depressed 1930s.
Under the sympathetic direction of Max Roberts, the Live Theatre Newcastle and National Theatre co-production of the award-winning play is brilliantly pitched and atmospheric.
The mood of the gritty determination of the pitmen, working in the claustrophobic darkness deep below the earth, fiercely proud of their heritage and their community, is captured and juxtapositioned with the pre-War excesses of the monied classes.
Unable to find a teacher of basic economics, the Workers Education Association makes do with art appreciation. Realising that lantern projector-accompanied lectures about the Old Masters and Renaissance was not hitting the mark, dapper academic Robert Lyon (David Leonard) instead encouraged the dwindling group to understand by doing.
This is the story of that doing which led to modest acclaim and interest by the wider world.
The group is represented by four somewhat stereotypical men (convincingly played to the last by Deka Walmsley, Brian Lonsdale, David Whitaker and Michael Hodgson) and Oliver Kilbourn (beautifully played by Trevor Fox) who explore the dynamics of art and socialism, of politics and struggle, culture and community.
Joy Brook is socialite and heiress Helen Sutherland who opens doors to allow a glimpse of how the other half lives and whose offer of patronage forces Kilbourn to assess just what is important while Viktoria Kay is aspiring art student and life model Susan Parks.
The paintings themselves take centre stage depicting harsh working regimes, denied education, everyday life above and below ground, and the effects of war.
An austere set with drop down projection screens and several wooden chairs is the multi-purpose hut, Rock Hall and various galleries and studios.
Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting combined with Martin Hodgson’s sound transports us into the bowels of the working mine to exhibitions, from railways stations to the drawing rooms of the gentry.
Beautifully devised, evocative, amusing and thought-provoking.