The Pitmen Painters, Duchess Theatre, London
Tuesday 18 October 2011
If the Ashington Group hadn't existed, it's tempting to say that Lee Hall would have had to invent them. For the author of Billy Elliot and undisputed laureate of working-class creativity, there could be no better material than this true story of a bunch of Geordie miners who, determined to improve themselves, hired a Professor to teach them art appreciation, and soon began to paint themselves, creating a remarkable body of work that became celebrated, for a while in the 1930s and 1940s, by the British arts establishment.
Max Roberts's glowing production of this superb play has already been seen in Newcastle, at the National Theatre and on tour. Its richly deserved transfer to the West End comes as even happier news than the slump in The X Factor ratings for this account of miners who asserted their right of access to high culture and found their lives transformed by art is a stirring riposte to the prevailing belief that, if you leave the masses and the market to their own devices, dumbing-down and meretricious standardisation is the inevitable result.
A wonderfully dour and disputatious gang, who range from Joe Caffrey's hilariously pettifogging WEA and union official to Michael Hodgson's dogmatic hardline Marxist), the pitmen are shown making awkward contact with the art world – first in the guise of their posh, airily earnest and faintly exploitative tutor (Ian Kelly) and later of a wealthy shipping heiress and local patron (Joy Brook). From the outset, the classes become an often fiercely funny debating chamber. As the miners quarrel over the merits of their own pictures of community life (which are projected in blown-up detail), questions about the nature and purpose of art and its economic base in a neck of the cultural woods particularly dictated by the tastes of the rich.
Of these, the most poignant is the tension between the individual talent and the collective. All craggy introspective dignity, Trevor Fox is intensely affecting as Oliver Kilbourn, the most talented of the group. He rightly jibs at the patronising notion that the group is a job lot of pitmen who prove that anyone can be creative, but when offered a stipend and independence by the heiress, he is agonisingly incapable of severing himself from the community that sustained him through terrible family tribulations. There's an aching sense of sadness, too, at the close, set in 1947 on the eve of nationalisation, which counterpoints the prospect of a brave new world with our knowledge of how bitterly those hopes were betrayed.
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