Billy Eilliot’s recent win of ten Tony Awards in America is a testament to Lee Hall’s brilliance, and how a story largely about class struggle can have a universal appeal. In The Pitmen Painters Hall works his magic on the true story about the Ashington Group in 1934, a group of miners who hire a Durham lecturer to teach them art appreciation. They go on to produce paintings of industrial life that critics love, have exhibitions in London, and gain rapid fame.
How do you appreciate art, and who can appreciate art? These are just some of the questions asked by the play. Feelings are universal, and the groups teacher Mr. Lyon is adamant that “anyone can paint”, meaning so too can anyone, even a miner, appreciate art. The play begins with a humorous first half (when the group are told Helen has come for modern art, one of the members responds “you’ve come to the right place, these were all painted last week”), and it gracefully moves into a poignant second half with Oliver who is artistically gifted but faces challenges with his own class struggle.
Hall adapts William Feaver’s book superbly, and Max Robert’s direction is equally good. The staging is stripped down to only five main cast members, five chairs, scattered paintings, and a screen to display work to the audience that the group talk about. The understated set is spot on allowing the high emotion, quick dialogue, and witty remarks to shine. It is Hall’s characterisation of the group that makes the play: they have a thirst for knowledge, working class spirit, and extreme likeability. The subjects are tackled with great sensitivity, you are never laughing at them, instead you are rooting for the miners to overcome obstacles either imposed by society or upon themselves.
Winner of the Evening Standard Best Play award last year, this is a must-see. A beautiful masterpiece.
Runs from 2 December till 18 January 2010.
To see or not to see: * * * * *