Reviewed by Roz Carter
Having debuted at the National Theatre in 2007 and subsequently been revived on the West End, The Pitman Painters has built up quite the reputation of being one of those plays people say “you simply have to see.” And they’re not wrong.
Dramatising William Feaver’s biography of northern pitmen in the 1920s who started taking an art appreciation class, but ended up producing their own body of work, Lee Hall takes dramatic license with the story by creating a smaller cast and developing their individual story arcs , rather than depicting a horde of men on stage.
The reason people have raved about this show is not only because of the sensational performances, but because Hall’s writing engages the audience with the traditionally lofty (dare I even say at times ponsy?) question of what art is by introducing the subject through the eyes of novices. The pitmen are never patronised and Hall uses their innocence to ask the big questions about art that people secretly think themselves, such as “why on earth did you pay that much for something a 3 year old could have done?!” The script is engaging and most importantly thought provoking, which leads to some rather sparky debates in the interval.
As an ensemble, the cast are dynamic and incredibly natural. The energy on stage is exciting to watch and Max Robert’s direction keeps the action pacey, rather than contemplative. As the miner’s union chairman George, Nicholas Lumley has a hint of Basil Fawlty about him which nicely complements Donald McBride’s performance as the slow of speech, quick of wit Jimmy. The actors never vie for attention as Philip Correia’s strong and stern performance balances Riley Jones’ quietly confident characterisation of the unemployed young lad.
The set is simple and effective with stripped wooden floor boards and aging stonework creating a village hall-like atmosphere. This cosy environment is shattered during the set changes as Martin Hodgson’s mining and eventually Blitz sound effects smash through the illusion that these characters are learned scholars, and reminds the audience of the immediate danger they face at work. Throughout the play the set gradually fills up with the pitman’s paintings, echoing the show’s key message; art belongs to everyone.
Full of humour, heart ache and discussion inducing themes, The Pitman Painters is a prime example of how theatre can challenge you to think independently while being entertained.
The Pitman Painters was reviewed on Monday 5 August at Richmond Theatre where it plays until Saturday 10 August before touring regionally.