The Pitmen Painters
Hall for Cornwall
Review by Lee Trewhela
I’LL BE honest, going out on a Monday night to see a worthy play about a bunch of early 20th-century miners turned artists wasn’t an attractive proposition after a weekend of sea and sun.
I should have known writer Lee (Billy Elliot, Spoonface Steinberg) wouldn’t let me down though.
Mirroring the tale of our own Alfred Wallace, the St Ives fisherman who became an art world sensation (and who gets short shrift in this play), The Pitmen Painters tells the extraordinary story of a group of miners from Ashington, near Newcastle, who started art appreciation lessons through the Workers Educational Association. Still going strong, the WEA had a stall in the Hall foyer.
On realising the miners had no idea who the likes of Michelangelo were – “A Titian”, “bless you” comes the reply – Robert Lyon (Louis Hilyer), master of painting at a nearby college, encourages them to paint instead.
The results – which are shown on screens above the drama – were astonishing, showing the every-day detail of life in a pre-Second World War mining town.
The group was fêted and collected by heiress Helen Sutherland (Suzy Cooper), one of the foremost supporters of Modern Art in the country.
Soon they were visiting London, even being entertained to an evening of madrigals by the Tate’s curator and they counted many of the leading artists of the day as friends. Indeed, St Ives’ own Ben Nicholson (Riley Jones) puts in a louche appearance.
In the first half, the duality of accent, geography and, of course, class is played largely for laughs – this is a far wittier play than you might imagine.
The miners (here pared down from 20 to four) are a wonderful jumble of contradictions – traditionalist George Brown (Nicholas Lumley), new world socialist Harry Wilson (Joe Caffrey), entrenched miner Jimmy Floyd (Donald McBride) and the one member of the group who could strike out as a successful full-time artist, Oliver Kilbourn (Philip Correia).
All four actors are superb, but audiences will love McBride as slow-witted Jimmy and his artistic bent for Bedlington Terriers; a wonderfully comic turn.
The storyline turns darker in the second half when class issues, the war and nationalisation threaten the Ashington Group. The audience leaves having swallowed a particularly bitter political pill in the final scene.
The Pitmen Painters is a masterly mix of top drawer writing and acting – see it before the run finishes on Saturday.