The Pitmen Painters tells the story of a group of working-class men from Ashington who created a phenomenon in their lifetime. Starting from a position of complete ignorance with only a desire to learn, they created art that defined their generation. Having originally opened in Newcastle in 2007, the show has enjoyed extended sellout runs at the National (twice) and on Broadway as well as a UK tour before returning to the West End now at the Duchess Theatre. I’m not at all surprised.
The first thing to say is that the acting is magnificent throughout. Every character, no matter how small, is fully developed, a dynamic and passionate person built from the foundations up. There is no standout performer, each actor having honed the character through the weeks and months of run that they have behind them and the result is something that you seldom see in theatre – characters that are vibrantly alive. They have within their cohort a history of their own and the longer this group stays together, the more material this bond becomes, the more you can feel a genuine relationship between these men and women on stage.
To single anyone out would be to do the others a disservice as each gave performances of the upmost professionalism. There was no moment that any of them weren’t in character and each was endlessly watchable from beginning to end while also being endlessly relatable. There is humour in their mannerisms and their speech but most of all in their relationships with each other and these are all dynamics celebrated by the cast and you can tell that they are all enjoying themselves immensely.
This is testament to the power of the script and the confidence of the direction as much as any other factor. Lee Hall and Max Roberts had worked together before teaming up to celebrate the renovation of Roberts’ Live Theatre Company’s theatre in Newcastle. Familiar partners make good partners, it seems, as the result of this collaboration is nothing short of magnificent. It is univocal, has one vision, one direction and the unity between all of these is striking. Every actor, every costume, every line seems perfectly suited to all the others and together it combines to make a whole that is so much greater than the sum of its constituent parts.
Hall has some prestigious work behind him, including Billy Elliot and the upcoming film release of War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg. There is good pedigree behind the script, then, and he has done his research. He also admits in the programme the couple of factual inaccuracies in the script, which commend him even more in my mind. The script has a humanity to it, a simplicity in the companionship these men found with each other and with the paintings that were to become so famous. It is a story that we can all understand and relate to because they are just like us. They don’t understand the big mysteries, they don’t have the power to grasp complex theories and change the course of the world but they have a passion for their art and a burgeoning desire to understand and to learn. We can all relate to that and in places we find ourselves heavily invested in the course the characters’ lives may take. They are us and they make it happen.
The set itself is simple and works well, transmuting from lowly hall to museum or country house with ease. The use of projectors is treacherous at best but this production uses them to enhance the production, drawing you in to what the characters are feeling by immersing you in the detail of their art and what they are seeing, thinking and feeling.
A touch in the design that I particularly liked was the use of actual paintings. Through the course of the play, these are arranged carefully around the edge of the stage so that at the end of the piece you can look on the stage as a wider exhibition of the work that this unbelievable group of people created from nothing. This exhibits the aim of the show, the power of the direction, in that it tells the story of these men not just through what happened but through the art they created. We can see in front of us the proof of it all and it is immensely inspirational.
Above all else, however, the script is an honest celebration of art. Not just in its abstract form apart from the daily business of living but as an extension of ourselves, as a necessary part of our creativity and need to express our experiences to others. What makes this story even more powerful is that it is real. It is not some fantasy dreamed up by a playwright locked in his shed trying to envisage a world in which he can play an important part; it is the story of a group of miners from Ashington who looked to the world for a purpose and who became one of the most important artistic movements in British history. Their work, and all work, is celebrated in this piece of theatre. If you ever have any doubt about the place and need for art in the world, watch this play and find yourself reassured.
This production deserves the accolades and the history it has made for itself and I hope it is never too far out of the sights of our community, especially in these dark economic times.
Written by Lee Hall; Directed by Max Roberts; At the Duchess Theatre; Starring Joe Caffrey, Trevor Fox, David Whitaker, Brian Lonsdale, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly, Viktoria Kay, Joy Brook; Runs from 5 October 11 - 21 January 12.
John Ord (10/12/2011)