The Pitmen Painters

Q Theatre, 305 Queen St, Auckland

17/11/2011 - 10/12/2011

Production Details


(potent pause) PRODUCTIONS present the Auckland premiere of the internationally acclaimed The Pitmen Painters, opening 16 November at Q.

From Tony award-winning writer Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) comes the true story of a group of English miners whose after-work art classes reveal a wealth of hidden artistic talent. Overnight, the amateur artists find themselves propelled from the humble mines of the North East to a rich, intellectual art world.

With a wealthy patron particularly keen to take one of the artists under her wing, the star painter of the Ashington Group will be forced to choose between his working class roots and the lure of fame and success.

Featuring performances from a stellar cast including Elizabeth Hawthorne (Outrageous Fortune, Mary Stuart), Joseph Rye (Batman Begins, East Enders), Calum Gittins (The King’s Speech), Stephen Papps (Russian Snark), Edward Newborn (Krapp’s Last Tape), Geoff Snell (Finding Murdoch) and Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu (Chalk), The Pitmen Painters is a humorous and arresting testament to the power of individual expression and collective spirit.  Would you leave behind the world you know for a chance at fame?

“Lee Hall’s play is ablaze with intellectual vigour, political passion and incendiary emotional energy. A beautiful work of art that everybody should see.” The Times

Fortune Theatre’s 2010 production of The Pitmen Painters was named Production of the Year in the Dunedin Theatre Awards, with cast member John Glass, who joins the Auckland cast, winning best male performance of the year.

The Pitmen Painters plays in Q’s loft theatre from 16 November to 10 December. Projections of the original paintings bring this moving story to life for both art lovers and theatre fanatics. LikeBilly Elliot, Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters is a funny and heart-warming tale that will charm audiences.

(potent pause) PRODUCTIONS’
The Pitmen Painters
plays at Q (305 Queen Street) from
November 16 to December 10
8pm on Tuesdays – Saturdays, 4pm on Sundays 
(no shows on Mondays).
Tickets are available from or phone 09 309 771. 

Elizabeth Hawthorne
Joseph Rye
Edward Newborn 
Calum Gittins
Joesphine Stewart-Tewhiu
John Glass
Stephen Papps
Geoff Snell

Set by John Verryt
Costumes by Kristin Sorenson
Lighting by Nik Janiurek.

Operator:  Peter Davison 

Hall unearths gem in tale of artistic Ashington miners

Review by Janet McAllister 19th Nov 2011

Playwright Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) is in his arts vs mining element with this traditional fourth-wall play, inspired by the two dozen working class artists of the celebrated Ashington Group.

Well-executed by (potent pause) Productions and directed by Paul Gittins, this chatty, accessible piece is How To Look at a Painting as presented by 1930s Northern English miners. It’s more earnest and less smarmy than Yasmina Reza’s Art, which does a similar thing in a very different setting. [More


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A performing arts connoisseur’s delight

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 18th Nov 2011

At the end of the interval of this 2 hour 30 minute production a man from the row in front of me leaned back in his seat and told me he’d made the costume rack. I think he meant the attractive wooden coat stand.  He’d made more than that for this was Michael Lawrence who founded (potent pause) Productions in 2001 and who has had a major hand in the more than a dozen fine works created since that date.

The company name references Lawrence’s love of Pinter (or – long pause – beat – pause – maybe not) yet somehow manages to embody the arcane programme choices made by him since the first production of Berkoff’s Decadence at the Maidment Studio, now the Musgrove, way back in 2001. The journey so far has included works by Pinter, Strindberg Mamet, Ionesco, Stephanie Johnston, Pam Gems, Joe Penhall and Peter Schaffer, the only common factor being that they’re all serious and uncompromising works, a bit like Lawrence himself of whom I am unashamedly a big fan. 

Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters continues in this mould both in style and quality.  His narrative, inspired by William Feaver’s 1988 book Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984, is fact-based and begins in Ashington, Northumberland, a working class mining community, during a vivid period of change in England’s social history. It’s fair to say that there are a number of parallels between Hall’s 1930s Britain and the Aotearoa/New Zealand today as Hall’s play is steeped in massive ideological and political change, namely the rise of socialism, which is perhaps paralleled today by the appearance of the revolutionary Occupy movement.

Hall underpins his text with frequent references to the writings of Karl Marx and has characters deeply entrenched in the paranoia of the time.  Dental ‘technician’ Harry Wilson (Stephen Papps) is the Marxian mouth piece and George Blessed (Geoffrey Snell) neatly sums up the all-consuming fear, rampant at the time, of an invisible management hierarchy with regular references to being “had up before the regional committee” of the Workers Educational Association (WEA). I can recall my father expressing similar somewhat irrational fears.

The plot revolves around five men, three of whom are pitmen from Ashington in Northumberland, the fourth a dental ‘technician’ and the fifth, an unemployed youth.

These characters, based on the core group of original artists of the Ashington Group, come together as part of a WEA art appreciation class in 1934. Art appreciation as a subject of study for miners may seem incongruous but the truth is clearly stated: they would have preferred an introductory class in economics but no teacher was available. 

Add to the mix Robert Lyon (Edward Newborn), a lecturer at Armstrong College in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (then part of Durham University), who, having failed with a chalk-and-talk approach to the classics, opted to get the men to try their hand at making their own art.  Thank goodness he did!

Lyons and the men find an immediate rapport and in no time Lyon has his students creating lino cut prints and daubing away prettily about what they know best. Their unique style – and seemingly instant success – leads to exhibitions of their work and an introduction to fine society alongside a less desirable exposure to all the idiosyncrasies and foibles of the urbane fine art world. 

The Pitman Painters is a play of ideas – sociological, ideological and deeply personal – at the centre of which is a never-ending debate about the nature and reality of art and of being an artist. The structure of the work is sequentially episodic and each instalment is separated, rather conventionally, by apt sound effects, apposite – if rather obvious – musical snippets, bird song, and slides. 

Having established the lads as a bunch of working class fellows dabbling with the philosophies of the Independent Labour Party, enter mega-rich heiress and art collector Helen Sutherland (Elizabeth Hawthorne) to skilfully represent the other side of this ideological coin and make devilishly attractive offers to Oliver Kilbourn (John Glass), the most talented member of the group, for not only does she collect art, it seems she may collect artists as well. 

One of her current collection, modernist Ben Nicholson (Calum Gittins), engages in conversation with Oliver and attractively illustrates what can happen to a young man who follows the money and gains entrée to the world of the glitterati. The challenge for Oliver is decide between his unquestionable loyalty to the Ashington Group and the tempting offer of a comfortable life as a full time artist sustained in every way by Sutherland as his rich and influential patron. 

Interval arrives with the men of the Ashington Group engaged in a beautiful orchestrated vocal litany which is both superbly written, fabulously performed and, as with the entire evening, splendidly directed by Paul Gittins. 

The second half of the play devolves into a series of metaphors around war, the war between the pitman and the blacklegs and scabs who threaten their jobs, the ideological war between the rough-hewn, working-class man and the soft, thoughtless snobbery of the middle classes and, of course, the inexorable advance towards World War II.  Each character makes a positioning statement and none stronger than Oliver Kilbourn’s to Helen Sutherland: “It’s not about the money, I’m a pitman, a bloody good pitman.” 

Just in case you were thinking that all this sounds simply like a serious and rather dull paean of ideas, it’s worth noting that it’s quite simply not. I repeat, it’s not.

The script itself is very funny, has great lines anchored deep in the character’s Northumberland heritage and delivered magnificently by as strong a cast of men as I have seen in a long time.  Jimmy Floyd (Joseph Rye), for example, is at the centre of a riotous textual flowering that evolves from his showing the group his abstract painting of a blob and includes some of the most enlightening – and hearty – descriptions of the social abyss that exists between these working-class artists and the established art world.

The debate rages around the artistic authenticity of a blob as might be painted by a working man compared with the same blob painted by, say, Henry Moore and contains the wonderfully provocative statement, “how things are represented doesn’t belong to the working class.” Great fun, all this is, man!

We’ve had this debate since, of course, and it surrounds John Cage’s composition ‘Four minutes, thirty-three seconds’. Is ‘Four minutes, thirty-three seconds’ of silence played by Vladimir Ashkenazy more artistically satisfying and ‘better’ than the same piece played by me who simply can’t play the piano. It’s generally considered by the intelligentsia that Ashkenazy’s version would be better but I would dispute this hotly! As does Jimmy Floyd when talking about his blob.

One of the most effective scenes in the play ends with the line, “Where’s the anger in this, where’s the fucking anger?” It’s a question worth asking about art – and there’s plenty of anger in The Pitman Painters, albeit much of it powerfully suppressed.

As the play winds to its conclusion – and time passes – we are led from innovation to the ordinary via the blunt instrument of fashion as wielded by Helen Sutherland. What is, in 1934, innovative and novel, has become, by 1943, mundane and commonplace and the lads are on the scrapheap. 

It’s not all over but you’ll have to see this excellent production if you want to know the rest. 

The success of this production of Hall’s fine play lies in the quality of the performances and the excellence of the supporting cast of director, set, lighting and costume designers. These are some of our most experienced and skilled theatre people working at their best on a complex and difficult play and its unqualified success is down to the quality of the ensemble teamwork and individual commitment.

The cast of men is quite simply outstanding. The Northern English accent is often fiendishly difficult for New Zealand actors but not in this case. Accents are true and accurate and allow us access to these culturally complex characters. Geoffrey Snell, John Glass, Joseph Rye, Calum Gittins and Stephen Papps looked and sound like the real deal and that’s saying a lot!

Balancing the Northern lads both culturally and linguistically, Elizabeth Hawthorne and Edward Newborn (Robert Lyons) are excellent with Newborn in particular creating a vulnerable, insecure and not especially talented art teacher with bona fide style. 

Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu (Susan Parks) makes the most of her small but important role.

Sitting astride the cultural divide is Calum Gittins who plays the pairing of the unemployed Northern lad who trips off to the war and the archetypical, oft-married Brit Ben Nicholson. Gittins Jnr is a prodigious young talent and it’s great to see the future of the theatre profession in New Zealand in such capable hands. More please. Much more. 

John Verryt’s excellent set consists of three projection screens in front of a series of layered hangings that provide a classy, gallery-like perspective, a wooden refectory table, a number of stacked, Broadback Bentwood chairs and a coat stand all of which is lit with the subtlety and class we have come to expect of lighting designs by Nik Janiurek. 

Kristen Sorrenson’s costumes are deliciously accurate to the period  and are created in a close-knit range of sepias, tans, chocolate browns, and mahogany. Karen Newborn’s hats are a delight.

Throughout the production a running narrative is projected on the three screens and this informs and guides us through what is in fact a simple enough historical narrative; a narrative which seems to end in failure when the Ashington group breaks up and the mining industry collapses but all this takes place on the eve of nationalisation and the unity expressed by the cast in the final stanza mirrors that brief period in British history where the world seemed stable and the balance between capitalism and socialism was carefully weighed. It didn’t last long but nothing does really. 

The paintings have outlived their creators though – I guess there’s a message in that – and, thanks to the vision of Oliver Kilbourn, are to be found in the Woodhorn Colliery Museum where they have been on display since 1993. 

The Pitman Painters is a great night at the theatre for a myriad of reasons.  It’s a performing arts connoisseur’s delight.  


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