The Pitmen PaintersPosted on: 13 June 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
A play packed with art, class and politics, plus plot twists and turns.
An inspiring play about ordinary people doing extraordinary things is how you could best describe Lee Hall's new drama The Pitmen Painters, directed by Max Roberts, which the National Theatre is staging in the Cottesloe auditorium.
In 1934 a group of Ashington miners hired a professor to teach an art appreciation evening class. Rapidly abandoning theory in favour of practice, the pitmen were keen to learn about art and within weeks were producing their own work. Within a few years their paintings amounted to a complete record of life in a mining community: clocking in, work at the coalface, Saturday night at the club, the corner shop, kitchen, alley and allotments.
The most avant-garde artists became their friends and their work was acquired by prestigious collections; but every day they worked, as before, down the mine. Even when one of the pitmen painters was offered a weekly stipend by a wealthy art patron to develop his talent as an artist, he turned it down - to his later regret - so as not to be separated from his pitmen friends and went back down the pit.
Hall intimately knows the community about which he is writing and the play, inspired by a book by William Feaver, celebrates the very notion of community and a working class which felt it had as much right to education and culture as those in the middle and upper classes. He skilfully manages to channel the urges, frustrations, and twists and turns of events into a dramatic work that is both touching and illuminating.
You will no doubt remember that Hall wrote the script for that hit film and stage musical Billy Elliott and so is adept at showing how individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and cultural differences to achieve success due to a combination of talent and determination. The result here is a humorous, deeply moving and timely look at art, class and politics that refreshingly eschews sentimentality and mawkishness.
Director Max Roberts manages to elicit excellent performances from his fine NT ensemble of Deka Walmsley, Christopher Connel, David Whitaker, Brian Lonsdale, Michael Hodgson and Ian Kelly as their mild-mannered art teacher, all of whom make us fully empathise with their situation. There is a final unexpected twist at the end which I will not spoil for you but which comes as rather a shock.
This for me is the best new play of 2008 so far!
Plays until 25th June 2008.
Box office: 020 7452 3000 or: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
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