The extraordinary and heartwarming true story of a band of hard-working North Eastern miners who became celebrated by the British art world in the 1930s and 40s is recounted with passion in the first class The Pitmen Painters, closing the Theatre Royal’s summer season in style.
Written by Billy Elliot creator Lee Hall (and adapted from art critic William Feaver’s book on the subject from the 1980s) this will surely go down as one of the best plays of the 21st Century, where every character matters and every word counts, at once compelling, moving, and humorous.
The play not only recounts the amazing story of the group of miners who started attending Workers Educational Association art appreciation classes but were persuaded to take up brushes themselves and discover their own hidden talents, and who became the renowned Ashington Group; it also explores the themes of largely uneducated working class people seeking self-improvement and being given a chance for their voices to be heard.
The Live Theatre Newcastle and National Theatre co-production, now enjoying its second national tour and directed beautifully by Max Roberts, is faultless, with every actor so perfectly cast you simply cannot imagine anyone else ever needing to perform the roles again, from the union bureaucrat to the avowed Marxist, and from the simple animal lover to the truly gifted craftsman offered the chance to leave mining and turn professional.
Deka Walmsley, Trevor Fox, David Whitaker, Michael Hodgson, and Brian Lonsdale are nothing short of brilliant as the working class artists (five characters representing more than 30 original group members in reality) , encouraged by their tutor (Robert Lyon, played by David Leonard) to express themselves through pictures, turning their experiences and feelings into paintings.
Their journey is comic and enthralling, especially with the balance provided by the two female characters: Joy Brook excellent as the supportive heiress and patron Helen Sutherland, who can see the gifts beyond the canvas, and the life model (Viktoria Kay) trying to make her own way in the art world but barely getting as far as picking up a paintbrush.
If there’s a flaw, the play does become a little bogged down in the political arguments towards the end, which is a shame when the rest treads so well the fine line between the discussion of art, class, socialism, criticism, individuality, and collectivism but that really is only a minor grumble when the whole production is so passionate and illuminating.
Ultimately it is a work of art in itself that deserves to be seen by as many as possible.