‘The Pitmen Painters’ at the Duchess

You could be forgiven for thinking that a play about a bunch of miners taking art appreciation classes would fall into the category of worthy-but-dull. But by using a technique, referred to in the trade as ‘hot shit writing’, Billy Elliot scribe Lee Hall has laid the bones of a production that is brilliantly entertaining and humanistically political.

The Pitmen Painters is adapted from a book by William Feaver about a real group of men from the Ashington pit before, during and after World War II. With the guidance of Lyon, a middle class academic, they learn to create their own art and eventually end up drawing the attention of a rich art collector and holding regular exhibitions of their work. Woven around this journey of personal discovery, questions about art and class are asked and gently mined until the rawest of answers are found.

What stands out, apart from the thick Geordie accents, is Hall’s ear for dialogue. This is a play that unfolds through the glorious medium of bickering. Whether it’s an argument about the role of a chain in one of the pitmen’s drawings (Is it a chain? Is it is a metaphor for bourgeois oppression? Most of the pitmen think it’s a chain). Or whether it’s a dissection of if a pitman can give up his vocation and accept patronage without losing his identity, this bantering style lends the material an enjoyable, easy-to-follow pace.

Each character is beautifully sketched, from the proud and gifted Oliver, to the bulldog union rep George, to socialist-theory spouting Harry. In less deft hands these men could have turned into caricatures but the extra character: art, lends each of them depth. As Lyon says: ‘The meaning of the painting is not in the painting – it’s in the observer.’ Through each pitmens’ reactions to the classics beamed onto the stage they emerge in their own well-rounded light.

This is a close to flawless production. It is well-cast, well-written, well-executed and well funny. The art slides and a couple of plum female roles inject variety into this male environment and the spirit of camaraderie conjures up a pre-Thatcher world when ‘union’ wasn’t a dirty word. The politics are so far removed from the dry dogma and preaching insidious in our system that you may feel the need to call the issues raised by a different name. Seriousness is not sacrificed for fun nor vice versa. There is even a quiet love story thrown in. The Pitmen Painters is the sort of educative production you exit with your consciousness changed for the better. Go see it.

The Pitmen Painters is playing until January 21, 2012 at:

The Duchess Theatre
3-5 Catherine Street
Covent  Garden

Box office: 020 7452 3000

Image by Keith Pattinson

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