Review: The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall (Lyttleton National Theatre)
Lee Hall’s play has orbited the country with great acclaim following its initial run last year at the National. Hall, is most famous for writing the popular Billy Elliot. The Pitmen Painters another political fable of our times, although this time, it is true events which have inspired Hall’s work.
The Pitmen Painters were a group of Ashington miners who in the 1930s organised their own “Art Appreciation Class”. The class did not appreciate the slides their hired tutor had brought and instead agreed to paint pictures themselves in order to learn about art generally. Lino cuts led to oil paintings. The painters became famous and held exhibitions of their work. One, Oliver Kilbourn, was offered the patronage of a local wealthy landowner.
The painters were applauded for their primitive techniques and subject matter — mining and scenes of their everyday lives. However the artists were heavily influenced by sophisticated artists such as Henry Moore. By the Second World War the Pitmen were beginning to be less fashionable, but they continued to paint.
Although the art is interesting (an exhibition of their work is also on display), the play throws up vivid political debates. Oliver (played by the excellent Chris Connel) has to decide whether to accept a rich woman’s financial support and escape the everyday danger of the pit or to remain true to his working class values and his comrades. This dilemma is skilfully explored and discussed throughout the piece.
The painting seems to be the men’s only escape from the relentless grind of everyday employment. In their paintings they find a place they can work for themselves.
Another issue that is explored is the upper class tutor’s attitude to his students. Although he seems sympathetic, his romantic view of their way of life is exemplified in the scene in which he asks Oliver to pose for him in picturesque pit clothes which he would have never worn underground.
Despite this being a play of serious issues, I was frequently erupting with mirth. The actors’ comic timing are consistently good throughout, with even the minor characters sustaining their roles magnificently. This is a (literally) hilarious, thoughtful, challenging and wonderful experience which I would recommend to anyone remotely interested in the pitmen’s struggle to expand their horizons whilst remaining true to their class.
It ends ironically with the pitmen welcoming the nationalisation of the coal industry as if it were the beginning of socialism… We know the story ends differently.