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The Pitmen Painters, The New Vic theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme - review with pictures

Entertainment | Published:

A group of middle-aged miners in grey suits awaits a night-class tutor in dismal monochrome but from the moment they open their mouths the colour, the feeling, the ideas, and the humour pour forth and splash. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the audience was left untouched.

The Pitmen Painters is based on the true story of coalminers from Ashington, Northumberland, who in 1934 commissioned Robert Lyon, through the Workers’ Educational Association, to teach them art appreciation.

Finding Lyon’s discourse on the Renaissance incomprehensible and his slides of Titian’s cherubs irrelevant, the class soon adopts the approach of ‘seeing by doing’.

Task one – a lino-cut on the topic of ‘work’ – is followed by a painting titled ‘deluge’. And the doors to creativity sweep open in a flood of ideas and enthusiasm. But deluge means different things to different members of the class and it is their showing of their work in the group, to frank criticism and joking banter, that provides the main canvas of the play.

So we are party to much discussion about ‘what is art?’ -- some very funny, some uplifting, none of it preachy (though one of the painters excuses himself with a ‘lecture over’ at one point).

But the canvas also gives us themes which drive the drama. Loyalty (and betrayal) loom large as one of the more ambitious painters is tempted to leave the pit and develop his talent full-time on a stipend offered by a wealthy art collector and would-be patron. And though the miners remain loyal to Mr Lyon, he uses them to further his own career. ‘Jolly well done chaps,’ he says after an exhibition, but then leaves to take a post in Edinburgh from which he offers to hang their work in the national gallery during the war because ‘all the permanent art has been moved to safety’.

The play’s canvas is also about ‘getting down the everyday moments’, and we hear unlaboured accounts of the harsh life of the miners that are deeply affecting. We see examples of the group’s work (also on display in the foyer) showing life down the pit, on the allotment, with their beloved whippets.

The Pitman Painters achieved national renown in the 1940’s, and the play includes a scene of tremendous hope for the group with the nationalisation of their industry, the coming birth of the NHS, and a new focus on education ‘for the many’.

By 2007, when Lee Hall wrote the play, the political landscape was very different. This new production arrives at a time when supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, at least, may see renewed grounds for hopefulness – and there were an encouraging number of younger people in the audience.

It was a particular pleasure for me to apply the miners’ questioning -- ‘what is art?’ -- to the play itself, and to find equally rich answers. The way the cast mastered their Geordie accents was in itself a masterclass in technique.

By John Hargreaves

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