Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, Ontario, 10.2.2012
The Pitmen Painters is one of the loveliest plays I’ve ever seen on stage. Written by Lee Hall, The Pitmen Painters is based on the true story of a group of miners from Ashington, Northumberland, who took an evening class in Art Appreciation, funded by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). Encouraged by a tutor from Newcastle, they started to paint and produced an impressive body of art. They achieved unexpected success and approval from the art community and were given prestigious gallery exhibitions during the 1930s and 1940s, while continuing to work in the mines every day. The play about class, art and male comradeship follows their development over a period from 1934 to 1947. Directed by Ron Ulrich, the production was both, funny and moving, and the characters were touching by their down-to-earth attitude.
The play begins with the group of three miners, a dental mechanic and an unemployed young man gathering in the meeting room to await the arrival of their tutor Robert Lyon (Jonathan Watton) from Newcastle. He’s younger than the others from the group (except for the young lad) and not the professor from a university they had expected. Nigel Bennett played painter George Brown who was in charge of the gatherings and as representative of the WEA kept insisting that rules are upheld in a funny, boisterous way. He had a pencil tugged behind his ear which he often used to write incidents he meant to report to the authorities into a notebook that he kept in his suit pocket.
Initially, the tutor began talking about styles and genres, which was completely beyond the comprehension of the group. They had chosen this class because they wanted to understand the meaning of art. So he encouraged them to paint what they knew – their village and their work down the mines. And then they discussed it amongst themselves, how the painting made them feel. The paintings or excerpts from them were shown on slides above the stage. As time moved on, their conversations about art became deeper and more philosophical.
Act one ends with the group sharing their thoughts about art after visiting an exhibit in London. The way they alternate in continuing the sentences from each other expresses neatly what a tightly-knit group they have become.
In Act two, Oliver Kilbourn (Michael Spencer Davis), the most talented of the group, contemplates whether he should accept the stipend that was offered to him by art patron Helen Sutherland (Sharry Flett). It’s his chance to quit working in the coal mines. Yet, he turns it down because he does not want to give up his job and isolate himself from the group.
Later, it’s Robert Lyon who leaves for Edinburgh where he has been appointed professor at the art college after writing a paper about the group and their progress. The play ends on the eve of nationalization of the coal industry with the group singing the Gresford Hymn. Nigel sang the first stanza solo before the others joined in, which was utterly stunning and caused goose bumps on my skin.
In summary, this was a brilliant and beautiful production. Ian D. Clark (Harry Wilson), Gray Powell (Young Lad/Ben Nicholson), Brian Tree (Jimmy Floyd) and Mary Elizabeth Wilcott (Susan Parks) rounded out the talented cast.