Cast: Joy Brook, Trevor Fox, Michael Hodgson, Viktoria Kay, David Leonard, Brian Lonsdale, Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker.
Writer: Lee Hall
Running Time: 120 minutes
Theatre: The Leeds Grand Theatre
After a sell-out season on Broadway and continuing a tour with The National Theatre, Lee hall's Pitmen Painters arrives at The Grand Theatre with high expectations.
Inspired by the book by William Feaver, Pitmen Painters is the story of a group of Northumberland miners who have founded The Ashington Group – a society dedicated to intellectual discussion. Deciding to learn more about art, the group recruits tutor Robert Lyon, who suggests that the miners paint to gain a deeper understanding of the medium. Surprised by the quality of the group’s output, they host an exhibition in Newcastle which soon gives the miners a celebrated notoriety within the art world, promising to change their lives forever. However, as the shadow of the Second World War descends, a near future of any kind seems wholly uncertain indeed.
Part art lesson, political dissection and social study, Pitmen Painters is fundamentally a docudrama play. It examines the roads of opportunity which existed in 1930s Northern England, specifically for the working classes, whose lifestyles were often determined at birth by the family’s inherited vocation. In this instance, if you were born in to a mining family the likelihood was that you would follow your father down the pit by early adolescence, with little recourse for other vocations. Pitmen Painters argues that rigid class boundaries can be subverted through the language of art, and that concepts transcend barriers of education and wealth. All that is required is the opportunity for voices to be heard, or as Lyon points out, for miners to be given a brush to gain that voice and become an equal contender in expression.
The sociological critique of 1930s Britain and its political segmentation is represented in microcosm by The Ashington Group. There is the good-natured, but clouded utilitarian George Brown, a didactic and paranoid ringleader whose dedication to rules and regulation threaten to irradiate any natural progression or flare the society may develop. There is also a debilitated socialist mechanic, injured in the The Great War, who passionately dreams of a nationalised world where everybody is working and rewarded by a common good. In addition an unemployed lad, the youngest character in the play and symbol of the future, has an uncertain future which is representative of his entire generation. Representing the malaise of the era within a small group allows Pitman Painters to illustrate a world which isn’t altogether different from the current decline in nationalised industry and public services of today. At its core, the play seeks to highlight how far as a country Britain has evolved, and devolved, in a mere eighty years.
A better cast could not have been assembled for Pitman Painters, with richly textured performances which are constantly engaging, amusing and deeply real. Each character is vividly brought to life by a cast who are, at this point in the tour, at the zenith of their performance. The pace and rhythm of the dialogue is naturalistic yet rapid and actors engage one another with electrifying intensity. Trevor Fox is both gentile and explosive as Oliver Kilbourn, a man torn between artistry and his own place in the world. Fox delivers a vividly brutal honesty to the part, with trembling rage in his most torn moments. Michael Hodgson drives a towering strength as embittered socialist Harry Wilson, casting shades of a young Iain Cuthbertson in his bombastic, earthy gravitas. Deka Walmsley and David Whitaker are paired as George Brown and Jimmy Floyd respectively, and are arguably the more comedic characters of the piece, however their performances transcend simply humour and assume greater depth and pathos as the play progresses. Whitaker’s petty, opportunist persona perfectly counterpoints Walmsley’s aggressive militancy and the collision is a joy to watch. In a particularly intriguing role is David Leonard as artistic polymath Robert Lyon. Leonard assumes an energetic, balletic quality which is perfectly pitched for humour, whilst also remaining realistically grounded for flashes of intense seriousness. In a dual-role is Brian Lonsdale, playing Ben Nicholson and the young lad. Both parts couldn’t be more different and Lonsdale transforms every inch from the shabby, lumbering youth into the stiff, somewhat brash Nicholson with ease and, importantly, without disruption. In a poignant way, Lonsdale’s dual roles, polarized as they are in character, seek to highlight the poor fortune which has fallen on the unemployed boy; it’s as if the young lad could have been Ben Nicholson, if he’d had the same breaks in life.
Of particular note is the carefully honed "pitmatic" dialect, which is a distinctively divergent North-Eastern accent quite unique from that of Tyneside Geordies. Throughout the show intonations and patterns of speech are used in wordplay to create confusion and genuinely hilarious confrontations, however the dialogue always feels thoroughly genuine and is never exploited as a cheap gimmick. Indeed, the clarity and perfection attained in the nuances of the pitmatic dialect gives Pitmen Painters a verisimilitude which resonates on stage as a wholly genuine encapsulation of a period long since gone.
Whilst being a male-centric play, the piece presents two female characters who are integral in redefining the miners as professional artists. Joy Brook plays wealthy art collector Helen Sutherland with a great deal of humility and empathy. There is a clear honesty in her performance which buttresses the philanthropic nature of the character on stage. Viktoria Kay also turns in a memorably bubbly performance as model Susan Parks, whose comfort in her own nudity produces a striking affect on the miners during a wonderful scene based around a nude study of the female form.
Max Roberts’ direction must be commended. The show embraces the practical simplicity of pure theatre combined with cutting edge stagecraft to provide a unique experience. Whilst the set is bare, black and grim, it is dominated by three roller screens which are quickly introduced as a means of projection for Lyon to present his slide collection. This visual enhancement is extended, by projecting the actual paintings by The Ashington Group in scrutinized detail, whilst members discuss their assignments. The technique is carried out with masterful skill, never intruding on the performances and always extending the scope of what can and cannot be seen on stage in its own scale. The interaction of the performers with the screens feels totally realistic and scenes become almost episodic with visual bracketing by slides, captions and industrial sound effects. Roberts’ performance direction is also first rate and technically invisible, with astute blocking methods which are always fresh and original, utilizing the depth of the set to give an almost cinematic feel on stage. It is theatre for the 21st century, performance for a new generation.
Pitmen Painters comes highly recommended as a piece of thought-provoking theatre as well as solid entertainment. It is uplifting yet tragic, optimistic and downbeat, vibrant yet dark. It has all the light and shade of a striking painting, yet like a pictorial study, is textured with hidden details within its depths. Like a provoking piece of art it will draw out different conclusions dependant upon the individual, however one conclusion will be unanimous: that Pitmen Painters is one of the most beautiful portraits of human endeavour to be seen on the modern stage.
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