Chris Connel became an actor by accident and is now bound for the National Theatre. David Whetstone meets one of the stars of The Pitmen Painters.
IN its short life – it had its premiere only last September – Lee Hall’s play The Pitmen Painters has had two sell-out runs in Newcastle and garnered more critical plaudits than most playwrights can only dream of.
On Monday, the play about the Ashington men who became an art world talking point in the 1930s opens at the National Theatre on London’s culture-saturated South Bank.
It is due to run until June 25 with the same cast who made it a hit in Newcastle – and you won’t get a ticket by conventional means.
Chris Connel, who plays pitman painter Oliver Kilbourn, says they have managed to squeeze some extra seats in at the sides of the National’s Cottesloe Theatre – but even those have now gone.
After the latest run at Live Theatre ended on May 3, the largely North East cast of eight was plunged straight back into rehearsals.
Chris, who I meet just before one rehearsal session, explains that in Newcastle they performed to an audience sitting on two sides of an angled stage.
In London, they will be facing the audience.
Sometimes, he explains, the sight of a familiar face in a familiar place on stage can be an actor’s cue. Without more rehearsal, a new stage set-up could sow a degree of confusion.
This will be Chris’s first appearance at the National Theatre, although he has appeared in a Lee Hall play before. This was the very first manifestation of the black comedy Cooking With Elvis, which opened at Live Theatre and subsequently, with different casts, ended up in the West End and at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal.
“I remember people queuing round the block to see it,” says Chris.
“Most of the stuff Lee does goes on to do very well, so we were certain we’d get a good audience for The Pitmen Painters. But I don’t think any of us expected we’d be sold out even before we got to London. The response we have had so far has been fantastic and we are setting off with great optimism.
“We are very pleased but I think we’re all a bit long in the tooth to imagine it’s going to change our lives or anything.”
Stranger things have happened. In fact, they have happened to Chris.
He tells me, in the direct, deadpan way that makes his performances so watchable, that he fell into acting quite by accident.
“I never wanted to be an actor. I did two plays when I was at Benfield School and when I was in the sixth form there was this kid who sent off in my name for a prospectus for a drama course at Newcastle College – just as a joke.
“I suppose the joke was on him because I thought I might as well go along. I ended up getting a BTEC national diploma in performing arts.
“I then applied to drama schools but it was the early 1990s and I couldn’t get any funding. Actually, I didn’t get invited to any auditions so I joined Bridge Personal Management (a Wallsend-based actors’ cooperative) and just started working for them.
“My first professional job was reading the voiceover for a Sunny Delight commercial.”
Chris, who is 35, says he had always wanted to join the Army. “But I was put off by my form teacher, Mr Perks, who used to sell Socialist Worker outside Eldon Square on a Saturday. He talked me out of it.”
The Army’s loss was acting’s gain. Chris has appeared in plays all over the North East and has turned up on television in Byker Grove, Badger, Crocodile Shoes and the short-lived Tyneside soap Quayside. “El Dorado with rain,” he recalls with a wry smile.
He demonstrated his versatility during the first run of The Pitmen Painters by also performing at lunchtime in the last play by Leonard Barras, North Tyneside’s own comic surrealist. In The Purple Pullover he was brilliant, even if the play – the swansong of Barras who died shortly afterwards – was largely impenetrable.
In The Pitmen Painters, in which everyone is brilliant, he shines as Kilbourn, the miner who took to art like a duck to water and came to demonstrate a better understanding of it than the expert, Robert Lyon, who travelled to Ashington to tutor the men in art appreciation.
In the play, Kilbourn shows promise and is offered a great opportunity, to leave the pit and be paid a stipend to paint for wealthy patron Helen Sutherland (played by Phillippa Wilson). He turns it down.
“His final decision boils down to a really basic emotion and that is fear,” suggests Chris.
“He’s frightened of the unknown. As Robert Lyon says in his final speech, ‘Don’t be scared, take your chance’. But he can’t do it. Essentially, the play takes you on a journey but it doesn’t go anywhere. In the end nothing happens.”
That is a measure of Lee Hall’s skill, in making the journey so rewarding. The play, which reopened Live Theatre after an extensive refurbishment, was inspired by art critic Bill Feaver’s book about the pitmen painters who became known in those heady pre-war days as the Ashington Group.
Chris says Lee re-wrote chunks of the play after the first successful run.
“Lee was worried about having too much arguing about art in the play but it turned out that’s what people wanted more of. Lee put in a new blob scene (prompting a discussion about abstract art) and the audience loved it.” There is talk of The Pitmen Painters transferring to the West End after its run at the National. If it does, it will sit alongside another Lee Hall creation, the musical version of Billy Elliot.
This is a coup for Newcastle and also for Benfield School. Chris went there and so did Lee, and so did actor Trevor Fox, who is starring in Billy Elliot, and who Chris will be staying with in London.
For good measure, so did actor Dave Nellist, who is due to open in The Likely Lads at Durham’s Gala Theatre in June.
All of this, agrees Chris, is a great advertisement for the North East and its healthy drama scene.