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Review: The Pitman Painters at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Lee Hall’s passionate Pitman masterpiece is a hymn to creativity and humour as Lesley Oldfield found out

Bill Kenwright production of The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall
Bill Kenwright production of The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall

On leaving the opening night of The Pitman Painters, I wanted nothing more than to nip across to the Laing Gallery and look at some art.

Lee Hall’s inspiring and inspired play is full of passion for art, debate about its whys and wherefores and the effects of art on those whose lives it touches and sometimes transforms.

First staged six years ago, it focuses, of course, on a group of Ashington miners who gathered at Workers Education Association classes in the 1930s and went on to see their paintings celebrated.

The play has since been a hit in the West End and made Broadway, touring widely prior to this week’s home performances, but it was the first time I had seen it. And I had not realised how much fun it would be.

Bill Kenwright production of The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall
Bill Kenwright production of The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall

There was laughter from the start … in the officious efforts of union man George, the political browbeating of Harry, the apparent idiocy of Jimmy, and the heavy accent of Oliver: “Ye de de ort, divvent ye?” on meeting their new tutor.

The audience chuckled from start to finish, not only because of wonderful lines – and I don’t want to give away all the jokes - but also because of a hugely skilled cast.

Donald McBride is a master of comic timing as Jimmy, which makes him a favourite. But each of the ensemble must take credit as we take them to our hearts.

The set is a simple hall, harking back, no doubt, to its beginnings in the tiny Live Theatre, but projector screens enable everyone to clearly see the detail of the paintings under discussion.

These, include, in a particularly stirring moment, works by Van Gogh, whose many mining connections were news to me.

The hard realities of mining are a vivid backstory and also depicted in a number of the Ashington Group’s paintings, which are often on show. But although the performance ends with the miner’s hymn, it is really a hymn to creativity.

When Oliver and his work catch the eye of a wealthy patron, he struggles with his working man’s pride. He lives to regret relinquishing the opportunity to immerse himself in his art, while his spurned benefactor chooses to cast doubt on the merit of his later creations.

Hall repeatedly asks, who is art for? Is it really for all? His answer is a resounding yes, but only after a thorough appreciation of what a tough question this can be.


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