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Review of ‘The Pitmen Painters’

By Arthur Rochester

Pauline Armour’s determination and patient wait to be able to bring this play to the BLT stage was fully justified by what will surely be remembered as one of the high points of the current season.

The play, by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, tells the true story of a group of coalminers from Ashington in Northumberland who in 1934 organised a Workers’ Education Association course in art appreciation – almost, it seems, by accident: “To be quite honest with you”, says one, “we were more keen on ‘Introductory Economics’, but we couldn’t find a tutor”. Quickly abandoning his unsuccessful attempts to inculcate art theory, their mentor encouraged them to learn by ‘doing it themselves’ and the pitmen began to paint, at first hesitantly, but with steadily growing confidence and enthusiasm – and much fierce debate. Their pictures vividly captured life in and around their mining community, above and below ground, and within a few years gained national acclaim and were sought after by collectors.

Hall’s script, if just a little preachy at times, brilliantly captures the innocence, cynicism, idealism and endeavour of a group of working men with minimal schooling, who spent their days in the dark, dirty and dangerous environment of a 1930’s coal mine. It is full of humour, but also presents a thoughtful exploration, not just of art and culture, but of class, community and politics.

Dan Armour’s production design, realised with considerable technical expertise and the support of a twelve-strong team, was deceptively simple but wholly apposite to the telling of this wide-ranging story. A collection of wooden chairs was swiftly and efficiently deployed by the cast to suggest different settings, but the overriding feature was the use of stage-wide rear-projection screens, on which the paintings being discussed on stage were shown to the audience, both fully and in detail. The screens were also creatively used to suggest a variety of locations – the pitmen’s ‘classroom’, a patron’s mansion, a railway station, art galleries, etc. – and also to display helpful text, keeping us abreast of the action and the play’s thirteen-year time frame. We were also reminded of the immutable presence of the pit by the sounds of the shift-end siren and the rattle of the cage, and moods were subtly established and changed by contemporary music and archive photographs.

This production bore the unmistakeable stamp of Pauline Armour’s direction, her interpretation demonstrating depth and insight and skirting confidently around the potential pitfalls of stereotype, patronisation and sentimentality. The pacing and shaping of the performance was beautifully judged, the dialogue at times delivered at breakneck speed and at others appropriately slowed to develop the intensity of emotion. Both the plentiful humour and the dramatic impact were fully realised and, on the night I attended, warmly appreciated by the audience.

The creativity evident in stage presentation and direction was matched by a series of hugely impressive performances. Hall’s characters could easily become stereotypes, but they were shown as real people with all their individual complexities. The pitmen’s banter, arguments and impassioned exchanges completely amounted to what one critic originally described as “a celebration of the extraordinary nature of ordinary people”

As George Brown, the decent, conscientious and hilariously pettifogging WEA official, insistent on enforcing regulations to the N’th degree, Dan Armour gave a completely rounded performance, subtly revealing the character’s underlying humanity as well as his officiousness – with, incidentally, an impeccable Geordie accent. Paul Baker’s Oliver Kilbourn, the most talented of the pitmen, who ultimately rejected the lure of patronage and independence in favour of remaining a part of the mining community, was extremely moving, especially in describing the profound self-revelatory effect of his first attempt at artistic interpretation.

Martin Phillips, as Harry Wilson, the dental mechanic gassed in the trenches and so unable to go underground, was a convincingly devout hardline Marxist, Chris Learmonth made Jimmy Floyd a lively comedic foil, with his ‘blob’ painting and interest in the female form and as the ‘Young Lad’, unemployed and desperate, short of sixpence to pay his weekly fee (the only character not based on a real person), Daniel Ryan fully confirmed the talent first displayed in January’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. These five not only delivered nicely-differentiated individual characterisations, but also offered an object lesson in ensemble acting, their dialogue fairly crackling and speeches often realistically overlapping (one of Pauline Armour’s directing trademarks).

The ensemble was augmented by Andy Solts’ perfectly judged portrait of their ‘professor’, Robert Lyon. Sharply contrasting his upper-class persona (avoiding the trap of overplaying its ‘poshness’), he gave a believable portrayal of the careerist who eventually used the pitmen’s achievement to advance his own academic status. Alison Green contributed a similarly convincing ‘upper-class ‘ character as Helen Sutherland, the wealthy heiress and collector who patronised (in both senses of the term) the pitmen and Helen Scott made a delicious appearance as life model Susan Parkes, bravely giving the audience at least a partial glimpse of her qualifications for the role. The cast was completed by Stevie Hughes in a relatively brief but significant appearance as artist Ben Nicholson, the self-styled “dogsbody of the nouveaux riches”, who first alerted Oliver to the drawbacks of patronage.

As the play drew to its close, the screens foreshadowed the 1981 closure of the Ashington pit and the 1995 rewriting of the Labour Party’s constitution, a poignant harbinger of what was to occur in the years ahead. Lastly, the cast’s excellent choral singing of Gresford, the miners’ hymn, to the strains of the colliery band, provided an intensely emotional and affecting finale. This production was remarkable in a number of ways, not least for its combination of serious social comment and irresistible natural humour, resulting in a thoroughly entertaining evening of true theatre.