You know that moment in a gallery where you stare at a splashy daub on a canvas and you think to yourself the more generous version of ‘I could do that’? That is: ‘maybe I could have a go at painting?’ Well, the Pitmen Painters speaks to that part of us that fancies having a go, and wonders whether we might even produce something acceptable (with a bit of effort and some good lighting). And it would be easy to imagine the play as an extension of this kind of fantasy, but of course it’s based on the true artistic exploits of a group of miners just before the Second World War.
Writer Lee Hall gives a great sense of the warm claustrophobia of the miners’ world, an orbit tightly centred on the small northern English mining town of Ashington in 1934. It’s a challenge, honestly, to put ourselves in their shoes: on all but one day of the week, these men were in the dark and danger of the colliery, putting in 10 hours of extraordinarily hard physical labour. They had left school at 11, and their opportunity for self-improvement was limited in a way that we now associate with developing countries. Their utter lack of access to books was coupled with a stymieing attitude – that for the working class, ‘culture’ was denied. It was Other. And Other meant anyone rich, anyone from the south. In fact, anyone from anywhere else – including Newcastle, the nearest city.
And somehow, despite this, and the physical exhaustion they must have felt, a small group of miners had an appetite to push their minds as hard as their bodies. Having completed a course in evolutionary biology at the local Workers’ Education Authority, they somehow had the vision to take an even bolder step – to organise an evening class in ‘art appreciation’. When the teacher arrives, they half-bark and half-plead: “we want to see what you see when you look at a painting.” The teacher’s normal theoretical approach is worthless – it assumes too much implicit knowledge that these men simply have had no chance to assimilate. But the teacher has the spark of insight to get them painting for themselves, and to get them to learn by doing. And so unfolds the story of the Ashington group. They became famous for their paintings of the working-class life they saw around themselves, and continued to work at the mine whilst being collected and exhibited.
The play has travelled from Newcastle to the National Theatre and Broadway before this run, and you can see why. It’s a wonderful, compelling story. It embraces serious politics, tender human interest and chuckly humour. And after the first half, I was gaspingly enthusiastic. The unfolding discourse on the meaning of art included some sublimely thought-provoking lines, yet the actors managed to deliver them lightly. As the audience giggled at the men arguing over a ‘blob’ painting, there was spreading awareness of real depth in the exchange – when is a blob just a blob, and when is it art? Through all of this carefully written dialogue, there was a strong if simply drawn sense of the characters. One was overacted – the pompous union official’s lines could have been spoken soberly and tightly to far greater effect. But other moments of drama were well handled, such as the climactic visit to the Royal Academy and Tate. The men beautifully convey their amazed reactions to the experience, taking turns to speak fragmented lines of building intensity.
If I had left at the interval, I would have given this 4 or 4.5 stars with a happy smile – like most of the professional reviewers, in fact. Sadly the second half, for me, felt overblown. The seeds of overacting and simplistic characterisation started to sprout. There was one powerful monologue, but a lot of unnuanced shouting for no apparent reason. It felt more and more as if people desperately wanted to make a point, and that the best way to get that across was to speak with more volume and urgency. And it might well be that this is what was going on. In the curtain call, the actors seemed unusually euphoric and the most prominent of the miners held up a fist and mouthed ‘Keep the Faith’ at the audience. The left-leaning voter in me was charmed by this, but I’m not sure it was good for the acting. So by the end, I was down to 3.5 stars.
On balance I would say you should go, to enjoy the story and to think about art and poisonous class divides. And either let yourself be carried along without too much judgment in the second half, or consider leaving at the interval to go and do something artistic. Like putting up that picture you’ve been meaning to hang for a while.
Check out a summary of all reviews of The Pitmen Painters at:
To find out more about the Ashington Group’s 86 paintings, visit the website at ashingtongroup.co.uk. Most of the pictures can be seen in a specially designed gallery at Woodhorn Colliery Museum, Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, Ashington, Northumberland NE63 9YF.