This National Theatre production has been around and about for five years now, including a spell in the West End, so it was high time we saw it. The story of the Pitmen Painters was new to me. The play by Lee Hall is based on William Feaver’s book about a group of miners in the 1930s from Ashington in Northumberland, who decided to start an art appreciation group and from that discovered an extraordinary ability to paint.
Like Lee Hall’s rather better known work, Billy Elliot, the play is set in the world of working-class, ill-educated people who struggle to accept the presence of creativity and artistry where traditionally there has only been hard graft. But whereas Billy Elliot has self belief and his problem was with his traditional, unimpressed father and brother, the only people that the Pitmen Painters have to convince is themselves. Embarrassed at their own ability, when the local wealthy P&O heiress takes a shine to their work they have no idea how to behave; and the play grapples with fascinating subjects like patronage versus independence, loyalty within a group, and the place of art in the fight for improved conditions for the working man. It also takes a good humorous look at the nature of groups and societies, how they develop, their rules, and how they react to outsiders; and at the nature of art itself – what does it mean, and how do you appreciate it.
It’s no serious treatise however. It’s extremely funny, with the humorous, class-based contrast between the well-educated, posher art crowd and the Geordie bluntness of the miners; and also the relationships between the group members themselves, each one of whom is convinced they know the best way forward. Lee Hall’s script is beautifully written, and is full of good lines that not only give the audience a good belly-laugh but also reveal the truth about the fascinating individual characters that make up the artists’ group.
Gary McCann’s set is unglamorously dark and foreboding, and there are just a few ramshackle old school chairs to suggest all the different locations of the story. To understand what the characters are discussing when they examine works of art, there are three projection screens at the back of the stage, which show the close up picture details. Even though it sounds a bit stagy and artificial, this device works extremely well and you quickly forget its essential lack of reality. The screens also explain the place and time for each scene, which is useful for a play with a number of short scenes that gradually spans 13 years.
The whole cast give a great ensemble performance and do justice to the memory of the real people they are portraying, with an entertaining blend of older and younger too. Nicholas Lumley is superb as George Brown, the authoritarian retired miner who runs the local Workers Educational Association and is never without his rulebook to hand. Short-tempered, world weary, pernickety, but essentially good-hearted, it’s a really well-rounded performance and totally believable. He has great comic timing too.
The young, idealistic element of the group is best seen in the character of Oliver Kilbourn, played with absolute conviction by Philip Correia. Kilbourn was one of the more gifted artists and Lee Hall depicts him as having a genuine artistic brain; for instance, he is the only one who can appreciate Ben Nicholson’s “circle in a square” creation that has so entranced the heiress Helen Sutherland played by Suzy Cooper. When Mr Correia talks about art appreciation it is like listening to a young child learning how to make sense of something new, and he brings a freshness and excitement with his growing understanding. Helen offers to pay Kilbourn to stop working at the pit and just paint, which causes him considerable anguish and pressure to make the right decision. His subsequent showdown with Helen is dramatic and vivid, and his anguish is palpable and painful; as is the atmosphere between them afterwards. The two actors work together really well here.
Donald McBride plays Jimmy Floyd as a humorously intellectual lightweight who apparently only lives to work robotically down the pit and to provide as good a home for the wife as he can; unless his working class tenets are threatened, and then he turns surprisingly confrontational; another very good performance. Joe Caffrey is excellent as the ruddy-faced Marxist Harry Wilson, always on the lookout to improve the lot of the working man and to spout Communist bon mots, but who clearly believes in a Utopia that will be everyone’s saving grace, is genuinely furious at inequality and becomes moved to tears by the Miner’s Hymn. Riley Jones is also very effective as the “young lad”, the nameless character who appears to be George’s nephew, ungainly, socially awkward, out of work but nevertheless with an ability to get to the heart of an argument when needed. He also turns in an excellent silly-arse-accented Ben Nicholson, in a very significant conversation with Kilbourn that alters his opinion about Helen and changes his life forever.
The catalyst for the development of the miners’ artistry is the character of Robert Lyon, the lecturer engaged to take the Art Appreciation Course and who suggested they have a go at painting, as his approach and their approach to art appreciation didn’t have any common ground. Louis Hilyer takes to this role with huge enthusiasm, his Home Counties gentility creating a hilarious first scene as he tries to understand the locals. Did he unfairly profit from his association with the group by exploitation? That’s another question the play poses and that you must decide. There’s a superb scene between him and Mr Correia when Lyon invites the now more mature Kilbourn to criticise the sketch he has created of him; talk about the boot being on the other foot. And there’s very good support from Catherine Dryden as Susan, Lyon’s pupil who wants to earn a little extra cash from posing nude, much to the hilarious alarm of the highly traditional miners.
I confess I wasn’t – and still am not quite – sure about the final scene, where discussion about Kilbourn’s idealistic banner for the Labour Party results in the rendition by the entire cast of Gresford, the Miner’s Hymn, which certainly some members of the audience also knew as they were singing along in the stalls; not entirely appropriately, I felt. The scene trod a fine line between genuine sentiment and mawkishness, but I think the majority of the audience appreciated it. What I am sure is that it is a very thought-provoking and entertaining play with a terrific cast and I am not remotely surprised at its continued success. Touring until August, and definitely worth catching if you can.