The Pitmen Painters

Written by:
Harvey O'Brien
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The Pitmen Painters

by Lee Hall
inspired by the book by William Feaver
National Theatre (UK) and Live Theatre Newcastle
Dublin: Gaiety Theatre October 6th  -10th, 2009
Presented as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival.
On Tour: Cardiff New Theatre 13 – 17 October; Milton Keynes Theatre  
19 – 24 October;
Lyric Theatre Salford 27 – 31 October; Lyceum Sheffield 3 – 7 November;
Theatre Royal Norwich10 – 14 November; Theatre Royal, Bath 17 – 21  
November; Theatre Royal Plymouth 24 – 28 November.

In 1934 a group of miners in Ashington, North-East England, began an  
art appreciation class under the tutelage of a lecturer from  
Armstrong College in nearby Newcastle. The class was organised under  
the banner of the Workers Educational Association, intended as a  
general interest endeavour with no practical dimension. Tutor Robert  
Lyon soon found that the clearest way to teach the principles of art  
to working class men without even much in the way of anecdotal  
knowledge of art history was to facilitate the creation of art of  
their own. The result was the now famous Ashington Group, a  
collective working man’s art school that gained significant fame in  
pre-war Britain and continued to operate thereafter.

Lee Hall’s play summarises and compresses the history of the  
Ashington Group, creating a set of five characters standing in for  
thirty or more and focusing most heavily on the theme of untutored  
art in the context of modernism. It dramatises how a group of working  
men developed a type of political aesthetic as heavily informed by  
developments in industrial modernity as any avant-garde experiment,  
but deployed techniques that were non-classical by dint of the  
absence of formal skill rather than outright defiance of aesthetic  
norms. In doing so, Hall does not suggest an ignorance of meaning or  
precedent. On the contrary, his play precisely dramatises how these  
men encountered the tradition of art through their practice, and  
gradually found their place within it, all the while continuing their  
daily work for their regular (low) income.

In form, the play comes to resemble a kind of art history class in  
itself. It focuses on the disparate reactions of a motley crew of  
characters to Robert Lyon’s (Ian Kelly) teaching (or at least his  
context / agenda setting), which means that as Lyon sets a task or  
raises a topic in aesthetics, meaning, or social purpose, the  
audience too is introduced to its contours by way of mapping their  
route to a response through those of the characters. There is George  
Brown (Deka Walmsley), the officious rulebook-wielding Union Rep  
whose sense of the world is informed by proper procedure. There is  
Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), steeped in Marxist dogma and  
constantly questioning the political value of any production of art.  
There is Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker), perennial comic relief,  
embodying the unpretentious innocent. There is Oliver Kilbourn  
(Christopher Connel), the group’s real-life superstar, representing  
the instinctual artist with the passion for a broadening of horizons  
and yet equally passionate about community, family, and rootedness.  
There is also ‘young lad’ (Brian Lonsdale), the restless unemployed  
youth granted entry ‘on sufferance’ and acting as a protean ‘angry  
young man’ who will eventually face extinction in the war. Though  
based on real people and using their real names and depictions of  
their real works of art (projected onto screens in the theatre),  
these are, nonetheless, dramatic archetypes deployed by Lee to  
explore attitudes towards art and self-expression in the context of  
the culture and economics of 1930s Britain.

It works beautifully for the most part on precisely these terms.  
Though it is transparently dogmatic, it is effectively dramatised,  
and the performances are crisp and focused. Each man knows his role,  
so to speak, and performs it with believable humanity as well as  
symbolic resonance. It is warm, funny, and definitively not  
condescending in telling a truly fascinating real-life story, most of  
the details of which are based on fact. However, the play lurches  
awkwardly into overt didacticism as it moves to a conclusion. The  
human dynamics of characterisation formed by the scenes of a group of  
individuals encountering art and finding themselves relative to it  
give way to a set of diatribes on elitism and a frankly tacky wrap-up  
that presumes to juxtapose the optimism of social agenda of post-war  
nationalisation with the failures of contemporary capitalism not by  
dramatising it, but in the most gallingly undeserved of ways –  
through surtitles summarising forty years of subsequent history. The  
play’s final scene, in which the entire cast unite to sing a miner’s  
song is clearly reaching for elegaic pathos, but it feels  
manipulative, sentimental, and lazy. It is also surprising, given how  
much care and attention had been put into the rest of the writing,  
and the deliberation with which complex discourses around class and  
culture had been unfolded throughout. Merely clubbing the audience  
with the message by way of ending the show seems somehow worse than  
failure and more like an act of self-negation. Still, the show  
inspires interest in its subject, and no doubt will draw audiences  
back towards the original art and artists, and that certainly is a  
worthwhile result.

Harvey O’Brien

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