The Pitmen Paintersis Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of a book by William Feaver, following the Ashington Group of miners who in the 1930s took an Art Appreciation class and became some of the most extraordinary artists of the twentieth Century. This piece, directed by Max Roberts, is subtly Brechtian, with projected scene titles and the cast sitting in the shadows upstage when not part of the action. These help to push through the political message, vocalised throughout the play by Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), whilst maintaining the balance of comedy and moving honesty that make this show so successful.
At first appearing dim and straight forward, the character of Jimmy Floyd has an unexpected depth which David Whitaker harnesses with real skill. Having seen the production during its run at the National Theatre, I wondered if Whitaker would be able to capture Floyd in the same way – his balled fists implied a childlike naivety that was only broken during his Act One monologue where, for a brief moment, we see something more to the life of this hardened miner. Whitaker has no trouble with this surprisingly complex part and provides a more innocent dimension to the group.
Trevor Fox plays Oliver Kilbourn, arguably the more central character in the piece. Quiet but powerful, he epitomises the potential of the group and the issues surrounding a life in the mines. Fox was the one I became most emotionally connected with, drawn to his passive demeanour and the sincerity that came through the few lines he spoke each scene. This apparently submissive attitude makes his outbursts all the more poignant as we see how this man has lived for everyone but himself, noticed only by Helen Sutherland (Joy Brook).
All the actors are strong and provide completely different perspectives within the play; Hodgson’s Harry Wilson at times overbearingly political, and Deka Walmsley’s George Brown a comically attentive man who loves his rules. David Leonard takes the part of art tutor Robert Lyon, and he does so with enthusiasm and charm, balanced by Brook in the part of the heiress patron who is both sympathetic and independent.
The set, designed by Gary McCann, is simple but effective in its use of space and light (Douglas Kuhrt) to move the play along without unnecessary stage changes or distractions. The Pitmen Painters has many different sides to it – a political statement about the privileges seldom given to the lower classes, an emotional journey for a group of pitmen seeking something more, and a comical look at pre- and post-war life. It is a play that will have you laughing out loud one moment and thinking deeply about society the next, without feeling tedious or imposing. It’s not just entertainment, it’s something so much more, sharing the lives of a group of men from Northumberland – as Harry Wilson rightly said “the value of art is in the whole”, and this performance brings together all elements to be more than just a story.