The Pitmen Painters, Richmond Theatre, August 2013Posted on 6 August 2013
The best way to do comedy is to take it seriously, and while the topic of this play is entirely serious, I don’t remember laughing so much for a long time. The first half is hilarious. Told that a potential sponsor, Miss Sutherland is interested in modern art, one miner’s response, “Well, you’ve come to the right place. These were done this week”, may not sound so funny, but delivered with perfect comic timing in a Geordie accent, the spontaneity of such remarks, and the interactions between the five working men, are deeply affecting.
In reality there were more than five in the group of miners who, in the 1930s decided to start appreciating art, and the story is based on real people brought most wonderfully to life by Lee Hall’s play. Inspired by William Feaver’s 1988 book on the Ashington miners, which Hall found in a second hand bookshop on Tottenham Court Road, his play was first produced at Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne before making an astonishingly successful run at the National Theatre. Direction by Max Roberts, Artistic Director of Live Theatre, gives a visceral energy to the intelligence, insight and commitment of the miners.
Harry Wilson, a working class Marxist intellectual, described by Bill Feaver as one of the most intelligent individuals he had ever met, was robustly portrayed by Joe Caffrey, and well counterbalanced by the huge artistic sensibility of Oliver Kilbourn, beautifully played by Philip Correia. The body movements and facial expressions of Nicholas Lumley as shop steward George Brown were a delight, and the whole cast brought this story gloriously to life.
The second half gets more philosophical, and there are of course serious issues here. Should high art be the domain of those with serious money, or a serious education, or indeed both? Few would agree, but merely disagreeing is not enough, and in an excellent essay in the programme, Lee Hall expresses his feelings about this. He describes the Working Classes in the early part of the twentieth century as being “aspirational about High Art”, but “despite the advances in education and the blossoming of the welfare state, somehow we have failed … and … dumbing down is not a prerequisite of culture being more accessible. That is a lie perpetuated by those who want to sell us ****”. And at the end of the play we see the some brief historical facts illuminated on stage.
See the play … and buy the excellent programme.
Performances continue at Richmond until August 10 — for details click here.