Review by Christopher Moore, Broadway Magazine
Lee Hall’s new play “The Pitmen Painters” tells a true story about a group of miners in Northern England during the 1930s. The miners pool together their resources to hire a teacher to instruct them in art appreciation. However, when their teacher arrives, he encourages the group to create their own works of art, rather than study old masters. The resulting works by this group eventually impress critics and wealthy patrons. The artwork of the miners becomes known as The Ashington School, which may not be as famous as the school of Impressionism, but holds a certain fascination all the same.
“Inspired” by a book by William Feaver, Lee Hall (”Billy Elliot”) crafts a script that mirrors the art of the Pitmen. It is a straight-forward play told in a straight-forward way, at times lacking passion for its subject, but never lacking an affection for the subject it depicts. Hall is deft when it comes to crafting clever dialogue, and he is eager to mine the many themes which the play’s subject raises: classism and art; the role of art and commerce; the responsibility of the artist; the nature of art itself; and a few others too. Hall’s script and the story of the painters raise some interesting questions and some un-interesting ones too.
At times, the play’s conversations about art, politics, patronage and class struggle feel a bit pat. Occasionally the Marxist rhetoric and issues relating to the nationalization of the mining industry lack an authentic dramatic thrust. The best questions Hall doesn’t and couldn’t answer, those relating to the decisions of the miners to continue practicing their painting, or even the reasons why each of the individual painters seem from the very on-set to be quite a genuinely talented visual artist. The first effort of each painter more closely resembles Rockwell Kent’s engravings than any work you might expect from a true first-time artist rendering.
While the art may never rise to the level of a masterpiece, it never sinks to the level of bad; which creates its own problem. Even the initial exercises were exceptional. There are no uncertain lines and even the mistakes are inspired. One wonders how random it was that the group of miners would request an art teacher in the first place. Regardless, the journey of these men is compelling and Hall does his level best to fit a large story on a small canvas.
The real charm of the production is the gifted ensemble of actors who bring the story to life. Christopher Connel is exceptional as Oliver Kilbourn, one of the more talented of the talented pitmen painters. Connel is entirely believable as an uneducated miner with greater aspirations, and his authenticity grounds the entire production in an earnestness that gives the play its emotional impact. Given the choice between a life in the mines and a life as an artist, Connel’s portrayal of Kilbroun’s struggle is muted and powerful. There is not a false note in it, and Connel’s performance makes Kilbourn a fascinating focal point for the dramatic action of the play. The rest of the ensemble is praise worthly too, with ian Kelly as the teacher Robert Lyon giving a nuanced performance at the sanctimonious art instructor with ambiguous motives. Michael Hodgson, Brian Lonsdale, Deka Walmsley and David Whitaker also offer strong performances. It is an ensemble that is in perfect sync and entirely natural.
As a play, The Pitmen Painters is entertaining and engaging. Though not perfect, Hall’s celebration of the artists of the mines is worthy of praise and adulation. While mining may not be a way of life in modern-day Ashington, there are plenty of other mines and miners literally and figuratively all over the world. Hall’s tribute to the redemptive power of engaging in the creative process is a reminder to all of the living Pitmen of this world now and in the future.