“Real Art belongs to everyone. ” “You take one thing and you transform who you are.”
The Pitmen Painters comes to Leeds trailing clouds of glory gathered during several years of success. It started small in Newcastle, transferred to the National Theatre and became a long running and award winning success both there and on Broadway. It is about to go into the West End with several members of the original cast still in place and this tour is a welcome chance to see it again in the North before London grabs it back.
I am not surprised that Lee Hall (who wrote Billy Elliot) recognised it immediately as a perfect subject for him when he picked up William Feaver’s book about the Ashington Group, a group of North East painters who began painting in the 1930’s, in a second hand bookshop. He must have felt like all his Christmases had come at once. He was the perfect person to tell the story of the pitmen painters and he has done them justice. It is a brave piece of writing, very fast, sharp and funny and if he hadn’t got the tone exactly right he might have risked patronising them. He has made changes for dramatic effect, as you have to in order to shape a piece of theatre, but the spirit of a fiercely proud and intelligent group of men sings out in the writing. They were intent on finding out about all kinds of things that they had never had the chance to learn at school through their Workers Educational Association classes, and they were prepared to put the time in even after a long shift down the pit in order to make up for what they had lost. Second best was never going to be good enough. They wanted to really learn with no pretensions or posing and they were not afraid to ask difficult questions. When they decided to have a go at art appreciation they homed in straight away on the key issues about the meaning of art and the London tutor that they had hired to come up each week to teach them quickly realised that showing them lantern slides of the Sistine chapel was not going to be of much use. They needed answers and there would be no hiding behind academic waffle. They were not going to be happy until they really knew. They were men of great integrity, proud of who they were and that was what they needed to express. They were going to have to learn by doing and that is what Robert Lyon led them towards, starting with lino cuts and allowing them to find and develop their considerable talent together as they looked at and criticised each others work. This approach eventually led to considerable wider acclaim, London exhibitions and a lot of attention but the men kept their jobs, held together as a group in spite of the pressures, and remained true to themselves and their community. Art remained central to their lives but they never allowed themselves to be sucked into the art market. Their work was kept together by Oliver Kilbourne, a key member of the group, and it is now displayed in a permanent gallery at Woodhorn. It’s an inspiring story, one which brings up issues of class and snobbery, creativity, and integrity, and richly deserves to be told. The play makes you feel very proud of what they achieved and also very sorry for all those clever and agile minds of the time who were not able to find the same opportunity. In some ways, as Lee Hall clearly points out in the play, the modern world has not managed to follow the trail that they blazed. We have let them down.
Great writing then, and wonderful dialogue, and the actors rise to it. Several of the original cast are still in place and far from this fact making the show look tired it has made it into a powerful example of a company working in perfect harmony. They know how to time every move, every laugh line and every exchange perfectly but the characters are so strong and well drawn that the play remains truthful and real. It is a true company piece, just as the men themselves were a “company”of painters. Along with the laughs there are some very moving speeches from Trevor Fox as Oliver Kilbourne ( one of which drew a round of applause at the matinee I was at- not something which you hear often today) and Michael Hodgson as Harry Wilson. David Leonard provides an interesting contrast to the miners as Robert Lyon, a decent man of considerable knowledge about Art who begins the play by suddenly finding himself completely out of his depth but who ends up finding great joy in what the men are able to achieve. His relationship with the group is fascinating. There is no automatic respect or acceptance given to what he says, it has to be earned, and he is humble enough, and insightful enough, to let the men find their own way and treat them as the equals that they are. He also has something to learn from them as they work together and David Leonard portrays this beautifully.
There are some fine scenes to enjoy. I loved the meeting between Oliver Kilbourne and Ben Nicholson ( a nicely played second role in the play for Brian Lonsdale) where Nicholson does most of the talking but you can see Oliver realising that he has to change his mind about his future as he listens.
The set is simple, brown and drab, slowly filling up with the colour and variety of their work as the play progresses, a metaphor for what is happening in the men’s lives and it has been directed with speed and panache by Max Roberts. He has done a lot of work with Lee Hall up at Live theatre on Newcastle’s quayside where the play began and it shows. Director, writer and mostly local actors have worked together in perfect sympathy. No wonder what they have produced has spoken to so many people from so many very different backgrounds over the last few years, just as the pitmen painters themselves did.
It took me far too long to catch up with this one, but I am very thankful that I did.