Having found global success on screen and musical stage with Billy Elliot, Lee Hall made a forceful return to playwriting with The Pitmen Painters, which premiered last September at Newcastle’s Live Theatre and which opened this week (21 May 2008, previews from 19 April) at the National Theatre where it runs in rep in the NT Cottesloe until 25 June (See News, 7 Apr 2008).
The piece - inspired by real-life events as recorded in William Feaver’s book of the same name - is set in 1934 in Ashington, where a group of miners have hired a Workers’ Educational Association professor to teach an art appreciation class. Unable to inspire the miners through lectures alone, the class soon begin producing works of their own and the results prompt a sharp discussion of the role and place of art within society.
In addition to Billy Elliot (for which he wrote the book and lyrics), Hall’s other stage credits include Cooking With Elvis, Spoonface Steinberg and fivetwothreeonefour. Max Roberts directs the original Newcastle company, including Christopher Connel, Ian Kelly and Michael Hodgson. The production is designed by Gary McCann, with lighting by Douglas Kuhrt and sound from Martin Hodgson. An exhibition of the work of the Ashington Group is currently on display in the NT Olivier foyer.
Critics were unanimous in their praise of the “warm, gritty humour” and generous working-class spirit of Lee Hall’s new play, which make for a “tragic, funny and illuminating” and “intensely moving” evening. Max Roberts’ “sublime” production was also commended for the quality of its performances, not least those of Christopher Connel and David Whitaker. Overall, critics agreed that The Pitmen Painters is “a beautiful work of art that everyone should see”.
Heather Neill on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Hall doesn’t stint on jokes and, for the first few minutes, there is straightforward comedy … But soon the audience is not only rooting for the art appreciation class members but - better - listening to their arguments. For Hall doesn’t stint on polemic either. His spokesmen … are highly articulate … Director Max Roberts, perfectly matching Hall’s tone, sets the action simply with stacks of paintings as the only significant props. Between scenes, lighting by Douglas Kuhrt and sound by Martin Hodgson suggest the heat and noise of work in the mines. But the most important design element is the use of screens, both to provide the necessary illustration when paintings are discussed and to give information about time and place. The sad note struck as the artists look forward to a new post-war world is that, in cultural terms, their optimism is misplaced: commercialism and reality television have taken the place of a hunger for books and art and the working classes are still under-represented in the art world. The Pitmen Painters is serious without being earnest, ambitious without being pretentious, heartfelt without being sentimental. It is highly recommended.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (five stars) – “Is it about feeling or accuracy? Where is the line between raw talent and learned technique? Can you read stuff into a painting that the artist never meant? These are the questions you always had but were too afraid to ask - except that this bolshie lot have paid their sixpence and won’t be fobbed off. It leads to a discussion of art that is both riotously entertaining and hugely sophisticated. It’s like Dad’s Army meets Yasmina Reza’s Art - only better. And true to Hall’s fiercely working-class roots, it never patronises the miners … Max Roberts’ unflashy production shows us the real Ashington Group paintings works on back projection, in a satisfying marriage of fact and fiction. The original Newcastle cast are a pitch-perfect ensemble, including Christopher Connel as the born artist trapped in a miner’s body, and David Whitaker, quietly brilliant as his shallower colleague Jimmy. Unlike in Billy Elliot, where creative success was a ticket out, this group’s ideal was to better themselves culturally without seeking economic gain. The play ends with their excitement on the eve of nationalisation, blissfully ignorant of the cynical, dumbed-down place the world would become. This is brilliant writing that shows the society our forebears dreamed of and raises uncomfortable questions about the one we got instead.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “A fascinating debate about art and socialism of a kind we haven't heard in the British theatre since Wesker's Roots half a century ago … Hall tells his story with wit and imagination. He shows that under the collective endeavour there is a group of querulous individuals ranging from a Marxist hardliner to a pettifogging WEA official. Hall also punctures easy sentiment. When Lyon suggests we are all artists, one of the group puts the case for specialist gifts, saying: ‘You wouldn't want just anybody filling your teeth in.’ ... Breathtaking in its scope, the play is sometimes harsh on the few non working-class characters: Lyon himself, who moved on to become an Edinburgh professor, is seen as a careerist using the Ashington achievement to advance his academic status. But this is a minor flaw in a generous-spirited play which, like Billy Elliot, argues artistic skill is not the prerogative of the privileged. Max Roberts' fine production contains a whole set of sharply individualised performances: Christopher Connel as a shining talent who resists the lure of private patronage, Deka Walmsley as the uptight local official, Michael Hodgson as the devout Marxist, and Ian Kelly as the inspirational but ultimately defecting Lyon are exemplary. But the final achievement is that of Hall, who has produced a play that is both a riveting social document and an invigorating political war-cry.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (four stars) – “’Good art simply radiates – it should bring light in,’ declares a line from Lee Hall’s new play. It, and Max Roberts’ sublime production, which comes to the National from Newcastle’s Live Theatre, are ablaze – with intellectual vigour, political passion and incendiary emotional energy … Like Hall’s Billy Elliot, it’s a hearty battle cry for the storming of the bourgeois barricades that separate the working class from the arts. It’s also a muscular, intensely moving debate about art’s place in our lives, its limitations as a force for social change and indispensability as nourishment for our souls … The play’s conclusion, on the eve of nationalisation in 1947, is bittersweet, as the men look forward to a bright, just future that never materialised. It’s a poignant ending to a beautiful work of art that everyone should see.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (five stars) – “Powered by the same convictions and angry eloquence informing his film script for Billy Elliot, in which a miner’s son defies convention to dance in the Royal Ballet, Lee Hall has composed an overwhelming semi-documentary play. The Pitmen Painters, in Max Roberts’ perfectly pitched and acted production, manages to be tragic, funny and illuminating in one fell swoop of energy. It deals with the culture barriers of England. It challenges the notion that high culture and art are too grand or complex for the working classes. The lofty issue is brought down to earth in a play making fun of the divide separating the miners from academics, bohemian artists and patrons.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent - “Lee Hall has become the undisputed laureate of working-class creativity … Hall finds good-natured comedy in the way that the airily earnest lecturer and his down-to-earth pupils are baffled by their mutually incomprehensible assumptions and language … Full of warm, gritty humour, The Pitmen Painters – which comes to the National in Max Roberts' deeply engaging and attractively acted production from Newcastle's Live Theatre – displays Lee Hall's great gift for tackling tricky questions about art and social class … But through the story of the miners, who demanded access to high culture and found their lives transformed by art, the play offers a stirring riposte to the prevailing view that if you leave the masses and the market to their own devices, dumbing-down is the inevitable result.”
- by Kate Jackson