It has to be said that The Pitmen Painters is something of an art and history lesson rolled into one. Written by Lee Hall – most famous for writing the movie Billy Elliot and the subsequent West End musical – The Pitmen Painters is based on the true story of the miners who hired a professor to teach them art appreciation and quickly abandoned theory in favour of practise, painting the life that they knew. Although the original collective numbered more than 30 men, that has been scaled down to 5 distinct personalities for theatrical purposes.
Set in Ashington in the north of England in 1934, life is tough, work is scarce and money is tight – and yet this play opens with great humour and warmth as the men bicker amongst themselves about what art is, the hidden meanings in paintings, and the rules by which they must abide if the class is to take place at all.
Led by the bureaucratic George (Joe Caffrey) who had quite a remarkable ability to turn his face almost purple with each vitriolic rant about anything from the plugging in of a projector to the immorality of accepting money for their paintings, the group consists of Oliver (Trevor Fox), Jimmy (David Whitaker), Harry (Michael Hodgson) and George’s nephew (Brian Lonsdale) and their esteemed teacher, Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly). The cast is completed by life model Susan Parks (Joy Brook) who seems determined to take her clothes off and art collector Helen Sutherland (Joy Brook) a keen admirer of modern art and raw talent.
The men begin with simple lino cuttings and slowly move on to painting, each developing his own style. Amongst the pacy lines and hilarious dialogue, there are some very poignant moments, particularly when Oliver (the most talented of the group) struggles to come to terms with his new-found ability and Trevor Fox plays this with great depth and subtlety; he has grown to love painting but does not consider it to be an honest day’s work – he comes from a long line of pitmen and even when he’s offered a weekly wage to paint full-time, he fears leaving behind the only life he has ever known.
I am always in awe of any actor who can multi-task; it is one thing to learn lines, develop a character and follow stage directions – it is quite another to do a chalk/charcoal sketch live on stage that so closely mimics the original it is based on (shown on a screen above the stage), whilst still continuing with a scene of dialogue as though this were the most natural thing in the world. I was completely spellbound – Ian Kelly, I take my hat off to you.
The Pitmen Painters is at The Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, Aldwych, WC2B 5LA and is currently booking until Saturday, April 14, 2012
Contains some strong language – suitable for ages 10+