The Theatreguide.London Review
Cottesloe Theatre Summer 2008; Lyttelton Spring 2009 and Winter 2009-2010; Duchess Theatre Winter 2011-2012
Lee Hall's new play is a docudrama, an essentially true story with some combining of characters and invention of specifics. His subject is the band of coal miners who, in the 1930s, took an evening course in Art Appreciation and wound up becoming artists themselves, the Ashington Group.
Following a book on the Group by William Feaver, Hall takes us from the first seemingly doomed encounter with their teacher, through their earliest attempts at self-expression, to their discovery by the art world and their growing sophistication and confidence as artists.
He leaves the story on the high note of the post-war Labour government, though members of the Group continued to paint and achieve recognition into the 1980s.
The story is by its very nature an inspiring one and, as Hall tells it, frequently amusing. It must be said, though, that much of his fictionalisation is strictly formulaic. He reduces the thirty-or-so miner-painters to five, and presents them as stereotypes - the by-the-book martinet, the socialist, the really talented one, and so forth.
For dramatic effect he exaggerates - at least it feels like exaggeration - both their naivete and provincialism at the start and their sophistication later.
It may well be true that none of then had ever actually seen a painting before or that they were shocked by the suggestion of a nude model, but it plays like cliché, and Hall eventually has them spouting critical jargon and political theory with possible-but-unlikely eloquence.
On the other hand, the play does achieve some complex characterisations. As directed by Max Roberts, Ian Kelly plays the teacher as one who is soon surpassed by his students and shown to have more provincial and unimaginative tastes than they develop - though there is an unnecessarily cruel scene in which his star pupil criticises the teacher's own work as second-rate.
One of the Group's first collectors and patrons was Helen Sutherland, and Phillippa Wilson makes her a very ambiguous figure, part supporter, part dilettante, part seductrice, embodying in the one character the complex and ambivalent relationship between the Group and the art Establishment.
Christopher Connel is strong as Oliver Kilbourn, arguably the most talented and therefore the most conflicted member of the Group, and there is solid support from the rest of the cast in this production brought to the National from Newcastle's Live Theatre.
Hall has the men themselves repeatedly reject any attempts to romanticise them or their class, insisting that they are not special because they are miners-who-paint, but specific miners who are also talented artists. The Pitmen Painters may teach you about a corner of art history that is new to you, but its strongest moments are the flashes of insight into the psychology of creation and the politics of art.
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