The Pitmen Painters

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

01/10/2010 - 23/10/2010

Otago Festival of the Arts 2010

Production Details

The Fortune Theatre presents the Australasian Premiere for the Otago Festival of the Arts, October 1 – 23, 2010
“I was a damn good miner, though I say it myself. I was strong, and I liked the work. You are battling against nature. Not just this nature all around, but what was laid down millions of years ago. That was the life I painted.” – Oliver Kilbourn: miner, painter.

Written by Tony Award winner Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and inspired by a book by noted art critic and painter, William Feaver,The Pitmen Painters is the triumphant true story of the Ashington Group – Geordie miners who, in 1934, hired a tutor to teach an art appreciation evening class. Rapidly abandoning theory in favour of practice, the pitmen began to paint. Within a few years they became celebrated painters, the most avant-garde artists became their friends and their work was acquired by prestigious collections; but every day they worked, as before, down the mine.

An arresting, humorous and deeply moving salute to the power of individual expression and the collective spirit, The Pitmen Painters takes you on an unforgettable journey from the depths of the mine to the heights of fame.

Three sold out seasons at London’s Royal National Theatre
Best Play: 2008 Evening Standard Awards
Simultaneously opening on Broadway and in Dunedin
Australasian Premiere

Hailed by London critics as  … a glorious instant classic” … (Evening Standard);  … a beautiful work of art that everybody should see… (The Times of London);  … a superb piece of work; warm, funny, sad, and thought-provoking … (The Daily Telegraph);   … witty and touching … the inspiring story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. 4 stars (Metro); A wonderful piece of theatre: comic, sad and stirring in the same breath. (Financial Times).

Background to the Play

Lee Hall has the common touch. When his radio play Spoonface Steinberg was broadcast on radio, lorry drivers pulled over into lay-bys so they could hear the end of the monologue narrated by a dying autistic child, and he captured hearts world-wide with his film Billy Elliot, the story of the miner’s son in a tutu. With The Pitmen Painters, Hall demonstrates a rare ability to make issues of art, politics, class and culture into a glorious and blissfully funny evening of popular theatre. He tells the true story of the Ashington Group: a collection of Northumbrian miners – and one ‘dental mechanic’ – who briefly became acclaimed by the art world, before life and war intervened and they slid back into obscurity.

Spanning the mid-1930s to the nationalisation of the mines in 1947, Hall tells the story of these strong, silent men with his customary mix of grit and earthy humour, as they discover the joy of creativity and self-expression, and in the process discover themselves. Like their paintings, this is a play that bursts with the struggle of life, particularly in the story of Oliver Kilbourn – the most talented and self-aware of the group – who would have liked to become a full time painter, but knew he could not detach himself from the community into which he was born. Denied access to education, his only escape was through the imagination. The closing scenes are tinged with the euphoria of a postwar Britain and the bitterness of the unfulfilled promises of that brave new world.

It is enormously moving, not just because Hall intimately understands the community about which he is writing, but because the play celebrates the very notion of community, and a working class spirit which understood that it had as much right to education and culture as those born into the middle and upper classes. Hall celebrates that, and the individuals involved, with hardly a hint of sentimentality, and in a way that never patronises its audience or the men it portrays. This is a play is about the importance not just of feeding your stomach and your brain, but about feeding your soul. 

Lee Hall regards the play as a sort of prequel to Billy Elliot -— and certainly, like the earlier work, The Pitmen Painters is hugely funny and moving. It is also intellectually spell-binding in its explorations of art and class meanings. “On one level, it’s Dad’s Army,” acknowledges Hall, “But, given that it also talks about fairly abstruse issues, I was still surprised how well it was received. I mean, nobody dies on stage, nobody gets married, there’s no sex or drugs.”

Yet in Newcastle, where the play first opened, the bar rang every night to heated post-show discussions about art between “lairds who had come down from Scotland and ex-miners, all of them with really strong opinions”. Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director of London’s renowned Royal National Theatre, jumped on a train to see it one Friday, and immediately offered to transfer the production, lock, stock and northern cast, to the National.

The Pitmen Painters had its World Stage Premiere commissioned by and first presented at the Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne, on 20 September 2007.

The Pitmen Painters
Fortune Theatre, Dunedin
October 1 – 23
Showtimes: Sun 4 pm, Tues 6 pm, Wed – Sat 7.30pm  
or call Maureen at Box Office: 03 477 8323 

Cast, in order of appearance 
George Brown: Craig Geenty 
Oliver Kilbourn: 
John Glass 
Jimmy Floyd: Mark Neilson 
Young Lad: Richard Dey 
Harry Wilson: Ross Johnston  
Robert Lyon: Robert Tripe 
Susan Parks: 
Louise Jakeway 
Helen Sutherland: Serena Cotton 
Ben Nicholson: Richard Dey 

Design & production
Peter King
Lighting Designer: Stephen Kilroy
Sound Designer: Rebecca De Prospo
Costume Designer: Maryanne Wright-Smyth
Stage Manager
Louise Jakeway

The action takes place in Ashington, Northumberland, Newcastle upon Tyne, London and Edinburgh between 1934 and 1947.

The sheer joy in creativity made real

Review by Terry MacTavish 04th Oct 2010

The Pitmen Painters is the true story of the Ashington Group, coal miners who in 1934 started art classes organised by the British Workers Educational Association.

It could have been patronising, even insulting: see the sturdy pitmen with their comical Northern accents try to understand Art! That it is not is a triumph not only for the playwright but for director Patrick Davies and his splendid cast, who make real people of the group of miners with artistic aspirations. Yes, it is very funny, but it is also passionate, political and moving. 

It is satisfying to see the Fortune giving its actors the chance to get their teeth into a play of real substance, tackling issues that leave an audience stimulated, with something to ponder. Playwright and working class hero Lee Hall has covered this ground before: Billy Elliot is only the best-known of his many works that explore class, ambition, and the transformational power of art. Many of the words in this script were actually spoken by the originals, and Hall had access to Oliver’s diary. 

Davies meanwhile makes the most of the inherent contradiction between the popular image of coal miners as the epitome of brute male strength, and the equally dubious stereotype of the artist as an effete poseur. 

Robert Lyon, an art teacher from Newcastle-on-Tyne, is initially asked to run the pitmen’s extra-mural class in Art Appreciation, but after a hilarious scene in which he realises the irrelevance of lecturing on the Renaissance, he has the sense to get the men to become practitioners instead. Painting what they know, the gritty reality of mining and the humdrum life of Ashington (16 miles north of Newcastle), they produce work of a quality to earn them a successful exhibition.  

They are taken up by the intelligentsia, and become flavour of the month, the first non-professional artists to be exhibited seriously. A wealthy patroness pays for them to travel to London to see the sights, including the Tate, an opportunity for a great comic scene that is smoothly choreographed and also moving, as they cap each other’s lines in lovely flowing dialogue. “When we saw the Van Goghs we became a group… Art was about how you lived your life… something shared… a spirituality… This was the inspiration!” 

The first half does not yield much dramatic tension, but the issues, earthy humour and engaging characters keep us absorbed. And sexual shenanigans are evidently not a vital component of a successful play, except that it is amusing to witness the men’s consternation when a life model arrives. 

Initially I was disappointed we were not to see anything of underground mining life, but of course that’s revealed in their art work, with three huge screens showing actual paintings from the collection the Ashington Group amassed: their womenfolk and social life as well as the mines. 

The second half follows the personal journey of Oliver Kilbourn, the most talented, who must choose between his own interests and the good of the group. The question is posed: Can you be an artist and working class? The spirited discussions become more political, taking in such issues as the nationalisation of the mines.

And always there is the crippling awareness they are sandwiched between wars: one man ‘never got over the trenches’ while the unemployed boy, known only as Young Lad, leaves to fight in WW2. The group’s response to Picasso’s Guernica has a raw honesty that comes across as sincere and poignant. 

Davies gets the best from a fine cast who work beautifully as an ensemble; vital because the pitmen form such a solid group, with a strong sense of community, mutual understanding and shared humour. As they say, “Hardship brings out the best in people when all are struggling together.” Painting for them is a straightforward activity with the intention of understanding the struggles of ‘real painters’, of the Old Masters – no flummery.

The real group comprised around 20, here they are represented by five, varied and individual enough to seem more. The actors have fleshed out their characters most effectively and show us proud, independent thinkers. All, coached by Hilary Norris, manage the mesmerising Northern accents beautifully and are a pleasure to listen to.

Robert Tripe is splendid as Robert Lyon, with such gorgeous length of limbs and fingers that he seems a deliberately elongated drawing himself. On his first appearance he spins like a distracted praying mantis, but he is the right man for the job and quickly understands the needs of his pupils, telling them, “Don’t confuse technique with expression – anyone can learn draughtsmanship.”

John Glass impresses as Oliver Kilbourn, the miner with true artist’s soul and professional potential, who struggles over whether to accept a stipend; if he does he will no longer be himself: the pitman who paints what he knows. Glass depicts the inner conflict well, and creates a fascinating undercurrent of sexual tension in his scenes with both patron and tutor.

Versatile actor Ross Johnston radiates stubborn energy as the Marxist Harry Wilson, a dental worker (miner of teeth?) who is nevertheless an integral part of the Ashington Group. His tautly controlled yet explosive movement is a joy to watch.

Mark Neilson, who has the ability to make a blank face incredibly expressive, is also perfectly cast as the joker Jimmy Floyd. He is particularly funny when, in an effort to become more avant garde, he defends his ghastly abstract painting entitled ‘Blob’.

The tight group is convincingly rounded out by Craig Geenty as earnest WEA supporter George Brown, and Richard Dey, who plays the doomed Young Lad and also doubles as a somewhat sweetly decadent Ben Nicholson, the modernist artist.

Serena Cotton is assured as patroness Helen Sutherland, sophisticated and particularly interested in modern art. (“Well you’ve come to the right place,” they tell her. “Most of these were painted last week.”) In contrast, Louise Jakeway bounces cheerfully as Susan, the nonchalant life model. 

The spacious set by Peter King is flexible, mostly representing the army hut used for the classes, and well utilised by Davies’ cast, whether their puzzled faces are gleaming in the reflected light from Lyon’s lantern slides, or they are downstage eyeballing us in a ‘celebrity interview’. Costume designer Maryanne Wright-Smyth allows the men occasionally to splash out from their drab ‘best’ grey suits, into vivid knitted argyle vests.

After the first World War, high hopes for a better and more equitable society created many such educational and cultural groups. Throughout the Depression, socialism remained a powerful force, here as in Britain. Sadly, for most, the dream was never to be realised. It is inspirational to share the courage, the growing skill and the sheer joy in creativity, of those for whom it did come true. 

“For a time I have enjoyed a sense of mastery,” wrote Wilson in 1945, “of having made something real.” Davies and his cast are perfectly entitled to feel the same. 
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