Monday, October 4, 2010

The Pitmen Painters

In The Pitmen Painters, Tony Award winner Lee Hall once again gives us a moving and involving look into the world of miners in the northeast of England, this time basing his play on laborers who became celebrated artists in the 1930s and '40s. Hall had previously brought this profession and its people to stage life as the book writer and lyricist for Billy Elliot: The Musical.

Pitmen, which takes place in Ashington, Northumberland, Newcastle Upon Tyne, London and Edinburgh between 1934 and 1947, offers a great deal of humor in the first act as the men discover art for the first time -- not one had ever even seen a painting and a couple stopped school at 10 or 11 when they started in the mines. Wanting to know “the facts” about art, they’ve hired art historian Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly, far right in photo) to give them an art appreciation course in the evening, but quickly become irritated by his repeatedly asking them how they “feel” about the slides he shows in the first class. They say they don’t feel a thing and only want to know what the paintings mean.

“Art isn’t about answers,” Lyon tries to make them understand. “It’s about asking questions.”

Realizing their background is keeping them from getting what he wants to convey, he tosses aside theory in favor of having them paint their own works based on a given subject. At first they are reluctant, but one by one take a chance and quickly become engaged in the creative process, even journeying together to London for the first time to visit museums. Soon art is the main focus of their lives outside the mines.

Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel, far left in photo), the first to experience the transforming power of art, shows the most promise, but ultimately he is unable or unwilling to leave his old life. When he is offered a stipend to paint full time by a rich art patron (Phillippa Wilson) he at first considers accepting the position but ultimately can’t take the risk and decides to continue laboring with his fellow miners underground.

The least promising -- and funniest -- is Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker, (second from left), a droll little man on whom the beauty of art is lost. The other students are George Brown (Deka Walmsley, center), Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson, second from right) and Ben Nicholson (Brian Lonsdale). The cast also includes Lisa McGrillis as an art student who poses nude for the miners, much to their excitement and/or embarrassment.

The second act is more serious and at times too wordy with its political pronouncements. The play, which runs two hours and 25 minutes, could be tightened here.

Although the real life men achieved recognition in the art world within a few years, becoming friends with avant-garde artists and selling their work for inclusion in prestigious collections, they continued to work nine hours a day hauling coal out of the mines just as they always had, painting when they could in the evening.

This production at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is the American premiere. First staged in 2007 at Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne, it features the original U.K. cast, all of whom are excellent. Max Roberts once again directs. The production features simple, atmospheric scenic and costume design by Gary McCann and lighting by Douglas Kuhrt.

Hall, who won the Best Book Tony Award for Billy Elliot The Musical, which is based on his screenplay, drew inspiration from a book by William Feaver that told the story of the Ashington Group, miners from Northumberland who became celebrated artists. He condensed the 30-member group into the five men in the play.

"It's a piece of lost social history," Hall told, talking about finding Feaver's book in a bookstore. "It was about this group of miners where I'm from in the Northeast of England, who became really accomplished and famous painters of their day. I got in a cab, and I started reading this thing, and, before I finished the first chapter, I rang [director] Max [Roberts], who is a long-term collaborator. I owed him a play, and I said, 'I’m going to cancel the play I was going to write for you because I found this fantastic story.'"

It is a fantastic story, and it’s engagingly told. A touching element is the projection of actual pitmen paintings. It’s heartening to think those uneducated working-class men are being celebrated once again, this time on a Broadway stage. And their work is now permanently housed in a museum created for it in Newcastle.

Roberts told, "I'd actually been to the museum where some of the paintings were being displayed in the Northeast of England. You know, you often buy a book when you go to an exhibition, and you look at the pictures, and you don't quite read it, and then you just put it on your shelf, so when [Lee Hall] rang me from the cab, [I said,] 'Oh, yeah. I've got that. I've seen the paintings.' And I actually pulled it off the shelf, and I read it straightaway and shared Lee's passion that this could indeed be a play."

This is one I definitely encourage you to see. Tickets may be purchased through, by calling (212) 239-6200 or at the box office, 261 W. 47th St.  For more information, visit

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