Having successfully delivered Billy Elliot to our stages and screens, Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters shares many of the same themes; also centring on a group of miners from the North East. Based on a remarkably true story, this cohort of raucous workmates discovers in themselves an entirely unlikely artistic streak…
When The Ashington miners from Northumberland agree to take part in an ‘arts appreciation’ class as part of a nationwide Workers Educational Association initiative, the last thing they ever expected was that they themselves would get to create and then appreciate their own art.
Guided by their affluent teacher Robert Lyon (phenomenally portrayed by Roger May) who incurs a few hilarious accent-barrier related hiccups on his first encounter with the pitmen, they soon become a huge success.
Set in the 1930s, the play is full of comedy, from the banter between the pitmen in their initial art classes to the appreciation – or lack thereof – of some very well-known artists more simplistic works.
The play radiates proud, working class values with socialism deep at the heart of it, giving a completely authentic feeling of what it was like to be a worker at the time.
Every actor portrays each character with realism and sincerity. A notable performance came from Bart Lambert who played both the young unemployed lad desperate for a job down the pit and artist Ben Nicholson presenting an impressive and stark contrast between characters.
David Nellist played miner Oliver Kilbourn, a keen painter faced with the dilemma of choosing art over mining, raising some important issues about education, the working class and the opportunities they have.
Simeon Truby portrayed miner Jimmy Floyd, another enthusiastic and budding artist who provides many comedy moments with his very literal interpretations of the art tasks set for the painters each week.
The set, by regular New Vic designer Lis Evans, is elegantly simple. Artist’s materials litter the edge of the stage with a mining lamp or tin hat periodically scattered among them, a gentle nod to the wider context of the play.
Something I hadn’t properly considered until after the play was that when each artist was showing his work to the group, the paintings (which are also projected around the stage so that each audience member can see them clearly) are copies of the real works of art from the Ashington Group. These are also on display for audiences to observe at The New Vic before and after the show and during the interval.
There are many thought-provoking themes in this play. Most notable is that this is not a play that relies on working class stereotypes, or a rags-to- riches storyline. This is a real, honest play about a group of workers who decided to try something new, and achieved unexpected great success by doing so.
The Pitmen Painters plays the New Vic Theatre until Saturday 7th October. Book your tickets at the New Vic Theatre website.