In the words of William Feaver, the author of the book on which this play by Lee Hall is based, “It’s often said the play’s the thing. Here though, projected above the heads of the actors — demonstrating once again that art making is art appreciation and art appreciation is also a zest for life—pictures, really are the thing.”
The Pitmen Painters, the play, began life at the Live Theatre in Ashington, Northumberland, Newcastle upon Tyne, and it is set there and in London and Edinburgh between 1934 and 1947. These were the formative years of the group named in the play, a handful of miners who signed up for a course in Art Appreciation to be taught by a man called Robert Lyon, Master of Painting at Armstrong College Newcastle. It was his decision not to expose these miners to a series of lantern slides of Michelangelo, Leonardo and so on, but rather to ask them to try to make images themselves. Given a subject, each member would do a painting, to be discussed in class the following week. All at once, these Tuesday evening classes became the focus of life outside of work in the mine.
When Mr. Feaver first encountered the group, it was in 1971 and the surviving members of the original group were elderly and reduced in number. But they were filled with memories, and they were devilishly proud of the collection of paintings which by this time had already been shown all over the country. Later they toured the Netherlands, Germany and China. Clearly there was material here for a book, and many years later Lee Hall made from that book this excellent play.
Mr. Hall, a native of Newcastle, is the author of the film and the musical Billy Elliot, which again deals with the coal mines and miners of his birthplace. Another example of the “write what you know” school, and we are the richer for it. By writing specifically, he writes universally, and we are both informed and entertained at the same time.
What a journey the play has had! Max Roberts staged it at the Live Theatre in Newcastle, word reached London that it was special, and it moved to the National Theatre; now the Manhattan Theatre Club has brought it to Broadway with the original British cast. It is nourished by the same sort of integrity and rightness as its big brother Billy Elliot, for it has within it the same seeds of universality.
In this instance, a group of men, uneducated in any area of the arts, discovers hidden depths within themselves, discovers enough innate talent to be able to express themselves with a brush and a palette on a piece of wood or canvas. The results are astonishing, showing us landscapes, interiors, mining operations, animal life, portraits, whatever subject leaped to mind when given an assignment that might have been as general as “My Day”, or “How I Spent The Weekend”. Of course the pictures alone would have been an interesting display, but Mr. Hall is a writer, and he’s managed to create 7 vivid characters from the dozens of stories that emerged from the 1971 interviews. At the Q and A that followed the performance I attended, we learned that though all of it is true, not all of it is accurate; that is, some of the characters are combinations of several men who were members at various times. The result is a pungent, quite often funny play about the miracles that can occur when inspiration is supplied, when bonding drives men on to competition and accomplishment.
We couldn’t ask for a better cast. These actors bring all the local speech and imagery to vibrant life. Ian Kelly as the instructor Robert Lyon controls the group eventually, but not without a struggle, There are inner conflicts, a word battle or two, a lot of laughter from some, sometimes at the expense of others. Out of all this comes a rich stew of a play. Out of similar material, Emelyn Williams once fashioned his play The Corn Is Green but he chose to focus on one miner and his mentor who happened to be a matronly school ma’arm. In this play, it’s the group of miners who take center stage, and as they are a varied and colorful lot, we are the better for it.
Well done, lads.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: