Posted: 08 Oct 2009
Pitmen Painters, Newcastle Theatre Royal
‘Always poignant and entertaining’ could be Geordie writer Lee Hall’s epitaph.
Not that we want to kill him off. The Billy Elliot award-winning Newcastle author has painted another masterpiece here.
He has that rare ability to fashion a funny evening of popular theatre out of the big questions – art, politics, class and culture. And like his story of a miner’s son in a tutu, he avoids sentimentality and never patronises.
Pitmen Painters tells the true story of the Ashington Group of miners – spanning a period from the mid 1930s to the nationalisation of the pits in 1947 – who hired a lecturer to teach them art appreciation and became acclaimed artists in their own right.
Hall completely understands the community about which he is writing and the dialogue fair crackles with northern humour. “If you’ve come for modern art, you’ve come to the right place – these were all painted last week” is a typically gritty one-liner.
And an appreciative North East audience enjoyed the comic use of Northumbrian dialect and word play.
Director Max Roberts goes for a stripped down staging with the main five-man cast members – from the original Live Theatre cast – five chairs, a few paintings and a screen to display the work to be judged.
But the play’s charm lies in the chemistry between the four pitmen painters played by Deka Walmsley, David Whittaker, Michael Hodgson and Christopher Connel.
Connel plays Oliver Kilbourn, the most talented and self-aware of the group, who epitomises the working-class struggle. His journey is the answer to his own question – which is also the conundrum of the play: ‘You can’t be an artist and working class.’
Lee Hall could tell you a bit about that.