THEATRE REVIEW: “The Pitmen Painters” by Lee Hall – The New Vic Theatre
20 September 2017 Theatre
Those who know the work of playwright Lee Hall will immediately think of the film and stage versions of “Billy Elliott”, a work set amongst the coal fields of the North East.
“The Pitmen Painters” takes us back to that same coal field in the 1930’s and 1940’s and tells the true story of the Ashington Group, a group of artists mainly made up of coal miners from that time who became well known in the art world, despite (or maybe because of) their working class backgrounds.
They became so well known that their work was exhibited in Newcastle, Durham and London and even today can be seen at the Woodhorn museum in Ashington.
Written down simply on paper a story about miners who learn to love art may sound a bit earnest and not the most exciting. However, in the hands of writer Lee Hall, director Gwenda Hughes and the cast, this becomes an entertaining evening in which the comedy opportunities are not missed but which also asks serious questions about the nature of art and how art is accessible to the working classes.
The plays follows the fortunes of Harry ( Simon Darwen), Jimmy (Simeon Truby) George (Jim Kitson), Oliver ( David Nellist)and an unnamed young lad ( Bart Lambert), who all attend an art appreciation class run by Robert Lyon ( Roger May). Finding that dry, overhead slides don’t work as a teaching aid, Lyon gets the group to takes a more hands-on approach and to produce their own work. Lyon’s motives are not entirely altruistic and the play makes the audience question how much he uses the group’s talent in order to enhance his own career. Lyon himself has all the right connections and does genuinely encourage the group, but as an artist there are hints that he does not have the natural feeling that Oliver has.
The interaction between the group members provides much of the comedy of the first half in which their comic timing is excellent. In the second half, when Oliver questions whether he should take money from Helen Sutherland (Victoria Gould) and become a full time artist, the cast show their true acting colours. David Nellist’s Oliver in particular shows the conflict between his working class background where art is not even considered, and the new world he is entering where appreciation of the arts is the norm.
As usual the New Vic stage and lighting provides a sparse yet suggestive back drop to the play, paint covering the stage floor and the works of the group are lit up around the stage to enable the audience to see them as they are being discussed by Lyon and his class.
For an entertaining, yet thought provoking evening, about the nature of art and the role in art of the working man I doubt if this can be bettered.
“The Pitmen Painters” runs until October 7th at the New Vic theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Telephone the box office for tickets on 01782 717962 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Ian Corbishley – Hitmix Radio
Images taken from New Vic Theatre Website