April 1, 2023

‘The Pitmen Painters’ at The Duchess Theatre, London

Lee Hall is a big believer in the power of art. Look no further than his 2000 screenplay of Billy Elliot as evidence of his conviction; the story of a working-class miner’s son growing up in County Durham in the age of Thatcher, the film charts young Billy’s discovery of the joy of ballet, and the ecstasy and passion he finds in this newfound means of self-expression.  The film also traces the blue-collar guilt Billy feels in pursuing such an artistic and traditionally feminine pastime. If we wind the clock back fifty years, and replace the young male ballet dancer with a man in his fifties with fondness for pastel work, we arrive at the The Pitmen Painters.

Hall’s latest play tells the true story of the Ashington Group, a collective of untrained miners and pitmen hailing from a small Northumberland town in North East England, who turned a passing interest in evening art appreciation classes into a more serious occupation, which saw the production of some of the most celebrated works of British Art of the 1930s and 40s.  Although each pitman is shown in the play to approach his artistic pursuit with varying degrees of understanding and dedication, the star of the show soon emerges as Oliver Kilbourn, an unmarried and humble man who displays an instant aptitude for the medium, as well as a profound critical eye. The group is tutored by Robert Lyon, an impassioned and patient tutor from Durham University, who ultimately struggles with the temptation of a lofty academic offer in Edinburgh.

Trevor Fox is outstanding as Kilbourn, delivering a performance that is all at once measured and erratic, ably flicking the switch between a mumbling and unassuming Geordie gent and a fiery-tempered working-class hero. The group is eventually taken up by Helen Sutherland, a wealthy heiress and collector played by Joy Brook, who performs the role with a calm coolness. The play’s best scenes are the exchanges between Kilbourn and Sutherland, with the latter representing to the former the promise of both romantic and artistic release. Kilbourn’s personal wrestling between his desire for artistic liberation, and the sense of duty he feels towards the pit, the other pitmen, and Ashington, makes for one of the more engaging scenes about the crises of identity that we have seen in recent theatre.

Where The Pitmen Painters falls down, however, is in its lack of emphasis on role development. Hall is fond of using the under-educated and untrained pitmen as a platform to address all sorts of profound issues about the nature of art; its meaning, its purpose, and even early questions about the notion of intellectual property. This technique, whilst intellectually engaging, tends to detract from the development of the characters and their relationships to one another, and to their art. A later scene where Lyon confesses to Kilbourn how much he misses the pitmen group rings false, as insufficient time was invested in the development of the tutor’s relationships with the pitmen.

Nonetheless, with Max Roberts’s inventive and intimate direction, Hall’s crackling dialogue, and stellar central performances by Fox, Brook, and Ian Kelly as Lyon, this a strong piece and certainly one to be recommended. Although often interpreted as a clear companion piece to Billy Elliot, the play’s greater and loftier examination and analysis of its central art makes it a smarter cousin to the former production; more high-brow and challenging, with much less of an emotional core. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, is up to the individual to decide.

The Pitmen Painters will play at London’s Duchess Theatre until the end of January 2012.


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