Originally published on my LiveJournal blog on 13 July 2011.
Lee Hall’s play about the Ashington group of miner painters has been a success for some five years now, ever since it was first presented in the Live! festival in Newcastle, from which it transferred to the National Theatre and then on to Broadway. Now it is back for a UK tour produced by Bill Kenwright before it gets a West End run.
Hall’s other main success is, of course, Billy Elliot, for which he wrote the successful screenplay. Some of the grit of this piece is also evident in ‘The Pitmen Painters’, a fictionalised view of a working-class group of mainly miners (plus a dental mechanic) who decide in their spare time to learn the appreciation of art, under the flowery guidance of a Mr Lyons. Lyons is quick to see their potential as he convinces them to become appreciators of their own artworks, eventually become feted as a depiction of the talent of the working class as a whole.
This approach could have easily misfired or taken an over-sentimental or patronising stance about the class system in England – Hall’s deft touch of writing and the performances of the leading actors (many who have been with the production since its birth in the North East) ensures it does not. Still, it is a powerful piece of politics as well as being very funny in places. And when it ends with a rendition of ‘Gresford’, the hymn of miners, it ensures the point of class and the post-war symbolism of Socialism is clearly underlined.
It is hard to single out any one performer for particular praise – as Oliver Kilbourn, Trevor Fox has more to do than the others, but I found his performance a little lacking in the more emotional scenes. For comic relief Deka Walmsley (George Brown) and David Whitaker (Jimmy Floyd) are good, but the best of all is Michael Hodgson as Harry Wilson, sharp of intellect and mindful of the need for the world to change. I enjoyed David Leonard as Robert Lyons, but it is a thankless part, really, and the closest to a stereotype. Brian Lonsdale impresses in two roles which show a gift for character – the doomed ‘Young Lad’ who tags on to the Ashington group, and the artist Ben Nicholson.
This play well deserves its success and the – no doubt – reasonable run it will surely have when it moves into London.