Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

The Pitmen Papers is a marvelous play, funny, moving, beautiful, that tells a most unusual story. It is now playing at the Duchess Theatre in London in a co-production by Live Theatre Newcastle and the National Theatre Company. It is a superb play and production on its own merits but the facts on which it is based make it even more interesting and enjoyable.

Unless you are an art specialist, it is highly unlikely that you have heard of the Ashington Group, otherwise known as the Pitmen Painters. As the name suggests, they were coalminers in northern England. About 30 of them became unprofessional painters and produced a significant number of paintings that were eventually housed in the Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Ashington, Northumberland.

The Ashington Group started painting in the 1930’s and lasted until after World War II. They gained some fame at the time and their work was sold and displayed to some extent. In 1988 William Feaver wrote their story in Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984.

Lee Hall was inspired by the book to write The Pitmen Painters which opened in Newcastle in September 2007, then made it to Broadway and it is now running in London. It tells the great story of workers who were uneducated but had the talent, will and luck to become painters and did.

Hall reduces the number of painters to four. Three are miners and one of them is a dental mechanic because he was gassed in World War I and became unfit for mining.

The four of them and an unemployed youth want lessons about art from Robert Lyon, an art teacher. After some hilarious and touching opening encounters (they have no idea what the teacher is talking about), they start painting and the result is fairly miraculous. All four display some talent, gain knowledge and appreciation of art and provide simple, direct, poetic and graphic paintings of their incredibly difficult lives.

George Brown is the leader and organizer of the art lessons. He is a tough, domineering figure who would sooner bluster than listen and wants his way. He believes in democracy provided there is no voting on any issue. Joe Caffrey is simply outstanding in the role.

Michael Hodgson does a very good job as Harry, the dental mechanic, who is a dedicated socialist, quotes Karl Marx and is a humane person. David Whitaker plays the rather selfish Jimmy while Brian Lonsdale is the unemployed youth who is usually yelled at by George.

The most talented painter and most sympathetic character is Oliver Kilbourn played by Trevor Fox. Kilbourn becomes aware of his abilities but he is even more keenly aware of his social status and his lack of education. Fox’s sensitive portrayal gives us the intense conflict that Kilbourn must resolve when he is given the choice of abandoning mining to become a full time painter financed by a rich patron (played by Joy Brook). He is asked to give up his world for another. An outstanding performance.

In contrast to the thickly-accented and rough-hewn “locals” we have Robert Lyon, the art teacher, who maintains his reserve as he tries to encourage and teach the difficult concepts of art. Ian Kelly makes a sympathetic Lyon who is responsible for the existence of the group but at the same time gains a professorship by writing a thesis about the unprofessional painters.

There are several screen on stage on which the work of the painters is displayed and discussed. A very intelligent idea because otherwise we would have had little chance of appreciating what the painters were doing.

The Pitmen Painters is much more than the story of coalminers who managed to paint as well. It presents a picture of the life of coalminers who worked 10-hour shifts for about two pounds a week. The young lad escaped by enlisting in the army in World War II. The others gained some benefits from their painting but in the end they remained as coalminers.

Lee Hall has constructed a fitting monument to their achievement and Director Max Roberts and the outstanding cast have broadcast it far and wide and provided a great night at the theatre.

The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall opened on October 5, 2011 and continues until April 14, 2012 at the Duchess Theatre, 3-5 Catherine St. London, England. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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