NOTE: The following review dates from May 2008 and this production's original London run in the NT Cottesloe.
In the Introduction to the published version of his inspiring new play, Lee Hall likens the art made from everyday life by himself and the cast of The Pitmen Painters to the art made by the Ashington Group, the subject of their story. Mainly miners, they recorded the experience of workers in the North East from the 1930s onwards with such honesty and intensity that they were taken up by fashionable artists and collectors. Hall makes them stand for an idea of culture owned by all classes and for an opportunity lost.
The Pitmen Painters, inspired by William Feaver’s book of the same name, was first produced by Live Theatre in Newcastle last year and arrives in London with the same cast. Hall doesn’t stint on jokes and, for the first few minutes, there is straightforward comedy as the miners struggle to communicate with their new Workers’ Educational Association teacher.
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 - notably Oliver Kilbourn (a thoughtful, beetle-browed Christopher Connel), the Communist Somme-survivor Harry Wilson Michael Hodgson and Robert Lyon, the encouraging but sometimes casually patronising WEA teacher played by Ian Kelly, are highly articulate. Most of these pitmen left school at 11, but they use their brains and discuss art and politics with originality, humour and perception.
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 - along with a visit to the exhibition of the Ashington Group’s work in the Olivier foyer.