First Night: The Pitmen Painters, Cottesloe, National Theatre, London

Power of underground art revealed
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The Independent Culture

Lee Hall has become the undisputed laureate of working-class creativity. In Billy Elliot, he showed how a needy Co Durham boy fulfilled his ambition to dance against the powerful odds of entrenched philistinism and the touchiness about class-betrayal that was heightened by the solidarity of the miners' strike. With The Pitmen Painters, he is on similar territory – except that this piece extrapolates from a true story documented in a book of the same name by William Feaver.

Spanning the mid-1930s to the nationalisation of the pits in 1947, the play focuses on a group of Geordie miners from Woodhorn Colliery who achieved fame as the Ashington Group. They came to art through a lucky accident. Unable to find a tutor for the evening classes in economics that they had hoped to take, they settled instead for hiring an academic to teach them art appreciation. Hall finds good-natured comedy in the way that the airily earnest lecturer and his down-to-earth pupils are baffled by their mutually incomprehensible assumptions and language.

Full of warm, gritty humour, The Pitmen Painters – which comes to the National in Max Roberts's deeply engaging and attractively acted production from Newcastle's Live Theatre – displays Lee Hall's great gift for tackling tricky questions about art and social class.

The tension between the individual and the community is greater here than in Billy Elliot and is explored through the figure of Oliver Kilbourn, the most gifted and introspective member. He's rightly resentful of the patronising perception that the group is a job-lot of miners who prove that anyone can be creative.

But when a glamorous art collector offers him a stipend that would free him from the pits, he can't face the prospect of divorcing himself from the community that bred him.

The production trains our attention on the pictures that are projected in blown-up detail. They bear touchingly direct testimony to a way of life that would otherwise have gone unrecorded and it's strongly suggested that their value lies in their collective expression. The play ends in 1947 on the brink of a brave new world. In a series of depressing captions about the future that counterpoint the optimism, Hall shows how the promise would bebetrayed.

But through the story of the miners, who demanded access to high culture and found their lives transformed by art, the play offers a stirring riposte to the prevailing view that if you leave the masses and the market to their own devices, dumbing-down is the inevitable result.

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