Lee Hall knows how to write about northern mining communities; most famously he created miner’s-son-turned-ballet dancer Billy Elliot. The relationship between high culture and the working class once again lays at the centre of his new play The Pitmen Painters.
Here, high culture comes in the form of visual art, the subject a group of Ashington miners hope to learn more about in a Workers’ Educational Association class. When their well-educated, upper class teacher realises they don’t know their Picasso from their pickaxe, a change of tack is required and they are encouraged to create their own pieces instead. As the group starts mining its own artistic seam, its fame spreads wider and wider, rippling through the art world and changing their lives forever.
In a play that deals heavily with socialism – the piece ends with the Nationalisation of the coal industry – the sense of group is important; there is no Billy Elliot-esque lead struggling to find a way out, instead the charm of the group is that they reflect the situation they find themselves in. As they repeatedly say, they are pitmen, and it is their experience of that community which makes their art so special.
One of the piece’s pivotal moments comes when the group’s most talented member, Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel), is offered a golden ticket to escape from the perilous, back-breaking world of mining and is left in turmoil as to whether he should take it or remain true to his background. It raises just one of many questions within Hall’s play.
Though Kilbourn is arguably the stand out character of the piece – his relationships with both tutor Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) and collector Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson) are ripe with unspoken tension – this is an ensemble achievement, with every character and performance adding a different brushstroke to Hall’s canvas. David Whitaker’s guinea pig-faced Jimmy Floyd steals many of the best comic lines, but certainly not the show.
Much of the play’s warm humour comes from the confusion of language and implications between the artistic and mining communities, a feat Hall achieves without patronising either side. Heated critical arguments about art and its purpose sit alongside the examination of socialism and capitalism, yet rarely stray into the realms of sentimental preaching.
The production premiered in Newcastle in the autumn of 2007 before, like the Ashington Group, making the trip to London. The ovation from the first night audience suggested this could be the second Geordie drama from Hall to enjoy its time in the capital.