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The Pitman Painters (tour – Cambridge)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This play by Lee Hall, which originated at Newcastle’s Live Theatre over three years ago, is on a new tour of the Max Roberts production. Its impact is as strong as ever, though the moments when its characters speechify – rather than exchange conversation through dialogue – now seem to skew the momentum. Gary McCann’s flexible setting and the crashing, much amplified sound effects of Martin Hodgson have their own abrasive effect.

Five of the principal characters are the pitmen themselves, working long shifts in appalling conditions yet willing to devote hard-earned leisure moments and spare cash towards WEA lectures. Trevor Fox as Oliver and Deka Walmsley as George dominate this group, with David Whitaker providing an engaging cameo of Jimmy. Brian Lonsdale doubles the young man on the dole and artist Ben Nicholson.

Coal-mining is a male-dominated world and the two women we meet are both outsiders. Viktoria Kay is Susan, part-time artist’s model (her willingness to strip off in the cause of her secondary career makes a marvellous coup de théâtre). Helen, the wealthy woman with a genuine passion for art and her willingness to invest in what is not-yet mainstream fashionable, is characterised with cool integrity by Joy Brook.

Didactic theatre can seem a little “old hat” these days – outside London and those regions where blight generates red-hot passion, at any rate. The Pitman Painters puts lives, places and times now dusted with the inevitable distortion of actuality created by the passage of time which makes us voyeurs looking in rather than complete sharers. But I defy you not to find the closing moments truly moving.


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