The cast of The Pitmen Painters considers a work of art. Standing, from left: David Whitaker, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly, Deka Walmsley, and Christopher Connel. Seated, from left: Phillippa Wilson and Brian Lonsdale. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: More art appreciation than drama, The Pitmen Painters might be described as Red meets Billy Elliot. But without the dancing.
The Pitmen Painters tells the story of a group of coal miners in Ashington, England, who decide to take an art appreciation class through their union. The teacher, Robert Lyon, arrives from nearby Newcastle upon Tyne, and also comes from a vastly different class and educational background. Lyon quickly decides to eschew the traditional art history methods of showing slides of works by Titian and Picasso, and instead asks the miners to paint something each week. As the men bring in their work, it is discussed and critiqued, often to great comic effect. And Lyon discovers that the class, made up mostly of men who never finished high school, has an incredible talent for painting. Word spreads, and wealthy art patrons are soon arriving to admire their work.
Watching Lee Hall's play The Pitmen Painters is in some ways like being a member of the Ashington group: Hall's dramatization of a group of coal miners who take an art appreciation class ends up being a lot like, well, an art appreciation class. This isn't exactly a bad thing. Much of the discussion in The Pitmen Painters concerns questions that are as familiar and engaging as they are unanswerable: what makes art good? What makes a piece of art worth something? What does a piece of art mean? And who decides this meaning? These questions are debated frequently, in response to a variety of different artworks that are projected on several large screens that hang above the action. In this way, the audience gets to take the class right alongside the miners, viewing the paintings in detail as they are discussed. If this alone sounds interesting to you, then you should buy your ticket right now.
Presumably, most audiences desire more than just a discussion of art in their theatre, and to be fair, The Pitmen Painters is not just an art appreciation class. There is some character development, most notably of Oliver (Christopher Connel), who is easily the most talented and intelligent member of the class. Connel's performance is easily the highlight of the play; granted, he probably has the best role, but his subtle mannerisms and quiet tension kept me riveted when The Pitmen Painters started to drag in the second act. And there is also some inter-group conflict, both because two of the men aren't actually miners, and because these men are opinionated and cantankerous. There is even a big decision that one of the characters must make (although this is one of the things invented by the playwright).
There is also much humor here, often arising from the clash of high and low classes, and from the nonplussed reactions of some of the miners to the art that they don't "get." Accents are misunderstood, and the uneducated miners find the thought of spending a small fortune on a white canvas with a circle on it somewhat bizarre. Sure, class and cultural differences are often the source of humor, but this case, I found it all a bit familiar. I laughed, but I found the jokes a bit easy, if not expected. Worse, the play at times gets uncomfortably close to allowing the audience to feel superior to these men, since the laughter sometimes comes from understanding what they don't. Oliver eventually points out these patronizing attitudes in Lyon and his high-class friends, and I felt that he could just as easily have been talking about the play itself.
The ensemble cast, all of whom have been with The Pitmen Painters since its production at Newcastle's Live Theatre, and then at London's Royal National Theatre, is excellent. The set is sparse but effective, consisting mainly of chairs scattered over a wooden floor. As the play proceeds, the miners' canvases accumulate around them, and almost without realizing it, the bare union hall becomes a full-fledged art studio. Director Max Roberts wisely keeps changing the staging from scene to the next, so the action never becomes too static. One minor qualm – Roberts has some of the actors sit upstage when not involved in the action. If Roberts is trying for some kind of Brechtian effect, it isn't at all effective, and although it isn't too distracting, it is unnecessary.
And of course, The Pitmen Painters is based on a true story, one likely unknown to American audiences (since it was also, until recently, fairly unknown to British audiences). This helps provide an emotional core to the piece that I imagine many will find appealing. The Pitmen Painters is kind of a companion piece to another one of Hall's plays – he wrote the book to the musical Billy Elliot, which also takes place in the coal-mining country of Northern England. Billy Elliot, which is chiefly about one talented individual, fittingly occurs as the coal-mining unions are being destroyed by Margaret Thatcher. So it makes sense that The Pitmen Painters, which concerns the talent of a group, ends with the earlier nationalization (read: flourishing) of the coal-mining industry. Much might be made of parallels like these, and if this kind of thing interests you, you will have much to discuss once the curtain falls.
But you may not need to, since there is so much discussion on stage. Discussion about art, certainly, but also discussion about the difficulty of mining work and the solidarity this work engenders, about the merits of the individual versus the group, and about the evils of capitalism (the play takes place from 1934-1947, as British socialism was on the rise). All of this talk is extremely accessible – this certainly isn't Tom Stoppard or Tony Kushner. But if you're looking for dramatic tension or highly developed characters, you won't find a lot of that here. That said, I believe many people will enjoy The Pitmen Painters. The best way I can describe it? As someone who has taught both high school and college students, it is the obvious choice for a class trip – even if the class isn't one about art appreciation.
(The Pitmen Painters plays at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, through Dec 12, 2010. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday at 2pm and 8pm, Thursday at 8pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $57 - $121 and can be purchased at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. Same-day student rush tickets are available when the box office opens for $27 (2 per ID). For more information visit www.mtc-nyc.org.)