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The Pitmen Painters
By Elyse Sommer
Instead of a straightforward adaptation of the Feaver book, Hall's play is a fictionilized version of the remarkable true story of a group of miners from Ashington in Northumberland. These men, most of whom left schol at eleven, are enrolled in an art appreciation class sponsored by the Workers' Educational Association. Under the tutelage of a college art lecturer, Robert Lyon, they emerged from knowing nothing about art, to themselves dabbling in paints, to winning acclaim as an artists' collective, aptly named the Ashington Group.
The economic realities of the theater called for a reduction in the size of the real life class from more than thirty to five — three are actually pitmen, one is a mechanic, and the fifth is a young lad who wants to work in the mines but has been unable to get a job. The reduced cast actually works in the play's favor — just as the art appreciation class was a lucky case of the miners making do with an art teacher who was available, as one to teach economics was not.
Building his faction around a small ensemble enabled Hall to intensify the dramatic focus, fully develop his characters individually and as a group, as well as with their tutor and a rich female art patron. Best of all, Hall enriched and broadened the uplifting self-actualization saga with a variety of themes: The joys and conflicts attending newly discovered knowledge and talents, the power of art to change the viewer and the maker, the sacrifices and satisfactions of solidarity, and the indestructible scars of a divisive class system. These are the same idea explored in Billy Elliott but are now realized within the well-made play genre.
While straight dramas with lots of talk and an abundance of serious ideas tend to be a tough sell to audiences who usually equate Broadway shows with musicals, The Pitmen Painters has found its own music in the laugh rich, incisive dialogue — especially as delivered by the strong, authentic voices of the actors who have clearly grown individually and as a team as a result of being with the play since its beginning in Great Britain.
A quick rundown of the ensemble's roles may make them appear pigeonholed as stereotypes. But trust me-- there's nothing stereotypical about any of these unexpectedly talented painters. George (Deka Walmsley) is the stick to the rules committee man. Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), is the dedicated Marxist who is most regretful that the economics class didn't come off and never fails to pop up with a politically tinged comment. Jimmy (David Whitaker), is a bit thick but full of enthusiasm. The unemployed youngest member of the group (Brian Lonsdale, who turns himself into an amazingly different character outside the Ashington milieu} manages to persuade the miners that he's entitled to this educational perk because he would be employed if it were not for a recession. Finally, there's the play's most talented and conflicted character, Oliver Kilbourn (a heart-stirring Chistopher Connel).
Given that we got to actually see the Ashington Group's work on the three large screens that overarch Gary McCann's wide open woodsy set, The Pitmen Painters has the added plus of being visually as well as emotionally and intellectually stimulating. The projected art works feature not just the paintings the men bring to class each week, but the works of well-known professional painters and the discussions about these paintings are an enormously effective device for making this talky art class hilariously entertaining. The tough, argumentative miners quickly make the upper class tutor (the excellent Ian Kelly) abandon his plan for educating them with slide lectures about the work from the great schools of art. As Harry Wilson puts it "I really don't think this is what we had in mind. . .Looking at paintings of cherubs and all that. No, we just want to knaa aboot proper art . . not all this stuff about the school of the Renaissance."
And so the painting lessons begin. The discussions become ever more diverse and, in one especially amusing scene, Lyon brings in a nude model (Lisa McGrillis), only to have what he considers "a special treat" met with outraged propriety. As the years pass, the hut where the men meet seamlessly accommodates various other locations that take the men outside their narrow world.
During much of the play, director Max Roberts astutely uses the between scenes sound effects to insure that we never forget that these men still spend ten hours a day in the mines. Though humor predominates, Oliver's extarodinary talent introduces a moving and ultimately sad note. Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson), a rich and trend spotting art collector offers Oliver a stipend so that he can quit the mines and devote himself to his painting. This raises an issue of solidarity (you may recall that this one of Billy Elliott's anthem numbers) for the group and most of all for Oliver. While Mrs. Sutherland insists she's offering him a lifeline to take his life in his own hands and not allow himself to be trapped by his impoverished, motherless background, either way he decides will involve pain and regrets.
The director has sensitively staged Hall's subtle points about class. One brief but chilling example is when the group is invited to London and as they're about to board the train their teacher is offered a first class ticket —- which he takes unapolegetically and which the group accepts without their usual gritty comments. Another telling scene involves Oliver visiting Lyon in his studio after he's left the group for a cushy university post he obstained as a result of his work with the miners. The sharp differences in each man's perception of art and privilege, begins with a totally inauthentic miner's uniform Lyon has Oliver wear when posing for a sketch.
The pitmen's uplifting journey from knowing nothing about art to becoming the first ever artists to represent the working-class in a British gallery exhibit paralells the changes in the mining industry during the same period. By the time the group meets for the last time in 1948 it's the eve of the nationalisation of the coal industry with its promise that more people like the men we've been following will have better working lives as well as greater access to self-fulfillment through learning and creativity.
If there's one downside to this exhilarating play it's that it can't be a wake-up call since all the promises held out by nationalisation went sadly unfulfilled. Still, Hall's play is an absorbing story and proves that even harsh, difficult lives need not prevent men from reaching into the deep corners of their souls.
If you're concerned about understanding the actors' Northumberland accents, not to worry. While they haven't Americanized their way of talking on the way across the pond, I had no problem understanding every word and neither did my companion. And forget all those rumors that intellectually stimulating yet thoroughly entertaining dramas with something to say are as dead as the British coal mining industry, and put The Pitmen Painters at the top of yur must-see list. If you're still not convinced, go to the Manhattan Theatre Club's Website (http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com) and check out their You Tube video about the play's genesis as narrated by Lee Hall and illustrated with some of the Ashington Group's paintings.
Postscript: Since The Pitman Painters is a British import, as was last year's terrific Red (also about art), you might think a straight play can only gain altitude in Manhattan with the cache of a successful British production. But take heart. Two outstanding plays by American playwrights that I saw in the Berkshires last summer are coming to New York. MTC's second theater at City Center will be doing The Whipping Man (their own version, not the one I saw at Barrington Stage) and Playwrights Horizon's next Main Stage production is After The Revolution, with the same cast and team that premiered it at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.