tue 31/01/2023

The Pitmen Painters, Duchess Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Pitmen Painters, Duchess Theatre

The Pitmen Painters, Duchess Theatre

Lee Hall's play about working-class miners turned amateur artists is sentimental and heavy-handed

Oliver Kilbourn (second from left) is played by Trevor Fox 'with all the fierce and focused intensity of the self-taught'Credit: Kevin Pattinson

Is there something remarkable about a group of working-class men learning to paint? You may think there is, or you may think there isn’t. You may think that anyone with very little formal education learning to do any of the things associated with High Art – even if the results are quite naïve – is, in itself, astonishing. Or you may not: give someone a brush, paints and a board and, your clear-eyed reasoning might tell you, either genuine talent emerges or it doesn’t.

You may find yourself also wondering: is it a peculiar habit of English sentimentality to find the type of story embodied by Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters so terribly moving?

The play has already been a smash, not just in London and Newcastle (where Hall’s play and Max Roberts’ production originated) but on Broadway – so, yes, it’s an archetypal story of English working-class consciousness that travels well. Now it gets its first West End run and I’m in no doubt that, just like Hall’s Billy Elliot, it’ll be a smash all over again. But that doesn’t necessarily make it that good.

It undoubtedly resonates for being a true story – a tale of 1930s Northumbrian miners who achieve some local success with their art group, even exciting the brief interest of a local modern-art-loving heiress (played in a rather shrill register by Joy Brook pictured below) who buys some of their work and who introduces them to the likes of Ben Nicholson. But its popularity must, I think, also be for the same reasons one might find a crudely written sitcom, with all its homespun philosophies and its moments of heightened drama, popular – though if this one were written by John Sullivan or Marks and Gran it would surely be a lot funnier and far less reliant on crude verbal mix-ups à la Mind Your Language.

There appears to be some confusion about the role of paternalism in this community where dignity in equality counts for everything

But the latter is exactly what kept coming to mind when confronted by gag after tireless gag that focused on the lower classes being continually miffed by what the upper classes were saying and vice versa. And while some of the jokes raise a titter, some are truly terrible. An invitation by the art teacher, Robert Lyon – played by Ian Kelly as an insipid, rather spineless do-gooding toff – to look at a Titian, gets the tired response “Bless You.” It’s a knowing nod to what makes for humour in this laboured and heavy-handed play (why use a light touch when you can ram your message home with a clunking ham-fist? – though, God knows, the reliable theatre-laughs did keep coming). 

Joy Brook as Modern-art-loving heiress Helen SutherlandAnd the play is truly at odds with itself. The characters, not just the working-class ones, are treated as ciphers, more or less. I don’t mean there’s no attempt at fleshing out some of their emotional complexities – there is – but that the characters are all subordinate to Hall’s message about New Jerusalem and its betrayal by successive governments, both Tory and Labour. I wanted to know what happens to these characters, particularly to star pupil Oliver Kilbourn – played, with all the fierce and focused intensity of the self-taught, by Trevor Fox – but instead, at the end, we get slide-projected messages telling us, for example, that almost 40 years after the play’s time span Woodhorn colliery got shut down, and that, in 1994, the Labour Party got rid of Clause Four. This clumsy tagging on of material (Gary McCann’s set – a dark and perfunctory school room – allows for overhead projectors on which such historical nuggets can be read, literally as if you were at a lecture) attempts to give the play emotional weight that it hasn’t actually earned itself. And it falls woefully, preachily flat.

And yet a speech by Kilbourn, that the men should not be patronised as working-class specimens who can paint – no one, he observes, would marvel at a bunch of posh people who could wield a brush with the same level of competence  – is so at odds with what Hall himself is doing by trying to pull at our heartstrings. What’s more, there appears to be some confusion about the role of paternalism in this community where dignity in equality counts for everything. Why is Lyon, for instance, implicated as an exploiter simply because he gets a professorship on the back of his work with the group? He stands accused of abandoning them, yet these are all grown men, many of whom have their own responsibilities and families. Was he meant to look out for them for life? 

There’s a lot of speechifying about the power of art, with its ability to elevate and inspire, but only one speech genuinely moved me, and this is given by one of the quieter characters in the group. David Whitaker’s Jimmy Floyd delivers a touching monologue about working down the mines as a child, and it’s one of the few that actually draws you in to the interior of these men’s lives. And yet, when it’s over, it’s undercut in an offhand way that’s meant to raise another laugh. Under Roberts’ direction comedy and pathos rub up against each other in ways that can feel somewhat strained.

A speech by Kilbourn, that the men should not be patronised as working-class specimens who can paint, is so at odds with what Hall himself is doing by trying to pull at our heartstrings


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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While your critique feels painfully plausible and is, I dare say, right on every count, I'm still left itching to see the play - possibly wasted money notwithstanding.  

I have absolutely no idea who this critic is and why infact we even have such things as critics, aren't people capable of making up their own minds, but this chap was not at the same play as us. Having seen this production in Glasgow, Newcastle and New York, I can't recommend it highly enough. West End here we come!!! xxx

Has this critic any idea of what this play was actually about? I have now seen it 6 times and do intend travelling to London to see it again. I have laughed and cried every time I have seen it. Why does this critic want to rewrite this brilliant play. His report reminds me of verbal diarrhoea. One of these people who can't agree with anybody else. Are the tens of thousands of people who have already seen, and thoroughly enjoyed it in America, England ,Ireland, Scotland and Wales wrong. I highly recommend you go and see it for yourself

The Pitmen Painters has been a success because it explores how people, in an environment where human potential was explored and encouraged, created art. Beyond that it reminds audiences that – as the pitmen knew – another kind of society is possible, which, in its turn, breeds hope. (This is what the reviewer apparently believes are “peculiar habits of English sentimentality”.) These audiences might even find all this rather refreshing, living, as they do, in a culture which celebrates the superficial and the transitory, denies creativity, proclaims that what we see is what we get, and is not wildly enthusiastic about any New Jerusalems. It might also help Ms Guner to know that the display of what she refers to as “historical nuggets” on screens during theatrical performance is now a really quite well-established technique.

What became of Oliver Kilbourn? Mr Kilbourn hewed coal and painted in Ashington, he was the last of the group to pass away, and ultimately his widow allowed the entire collection of paintings, under a group of trustees, to be displayed in Woodhorn Museum in Ashington. I really do not think the reviewer has quite realised the bleakness and remoteness of life in Ashington in the 1930s, there are hints of it in the play, no library, difficulty in getting trains out, no further education and for a lot no secondary education. There has always been a strong seam of self improvement, look at the footballers who come from Ashington the Charlton brothers and Jackie Milburn, take the current MP, a mine worker arrested during the strike, harassed by the police, denied training opportunities, he is eloquent on unemployment in the area or Gaza, an intelligent self taught man. He is at this end of a spectrum where solid working class people have been treated shabbily by the establishment. Hall is of an age to have met strong single minded people, as a child, these characters are rooted in real people where ‘comedy and pathos’ did and still comes together. As a child I knew an ex-miner who lost two fingers on the Russian convoy and subsequently the other arm in the pit, the ‘one-armed bandit’ had no rancour about his situation was a strong and true socialist, he knew there were people worse off than himself. Ashington has been let down by successive governments, perhaps it needs clause four. Think yourself privileged that between Hall’s script, the cast and the director you have been allowed an insight into the hidden back bone of this country. Hard working, with integrity, sober, honest, clever, humorous and with talent.

Thank you for taking the time to write this. It is very informative and well written. I agree with everything you have said.

Thank you Glenis, I am proud of my roots and proud of area and the people who live there. There are two types of folk from that area, those who hack it out and never leave, and those who leave and never return, I fall into the second catergory. I have been away 30 years, as an economic migrant, I won't be going back I live in the South of England, and the play reminds me of the 'big' characters I knew as a child, miners, artists, farmers, fishermen or my da' the arts administrator who fought to have the painting preserved in a musuem, so PP is sentimental for me.

All interesting comments. Personally, I found the play rather patronising. That doesn’t stop me understanding its appeal, but I also think that Hall has a problem writing characters who can speak and react as anything other than types. My argument is exclusively with Hall’s craft – he fails to do dramatically what he’s exhorts others, through the voice of Kilbourn, to do – to treat these people not as interchangeable mouthpieces but as individuals. And what’s with the grating caricature of posh Ben Nicholson? (Was it really just privilege that made him an artist – “Oh, because Daddy was an artist”, as he's made to say? From Turner to Bomberg there are plenty of artists who had a truly, truly terrible start in life). And was Robert Lyon really a spineless, insipid careerist who let these men down? In what way? And yes, of course, pathos and comedy co-exist – in life, in art. Shakespeare does it very well. Hall, in my opinion, doesn’t, particularly. That doesn’t make me ignorant of the hardships of working-class life (why make assumptions about the writer of this review? - I'm also a she, not a he), but simply unable to warm to this play.

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