Review – The Pitmen Painters, National Theatre

Tuesday 20 May 2008

“This is the last chance for the Cottelsoe,” muttered Phil as the Whingers dilly-DALIed disconsolately towards the National Theatre last night.

“Indeed,” grumbled Andrew. “Enough is enough”.

And this time they really meant it.

So really quite a lot was hanging on the first preview (apart from the run it has just had in Newcastle) of The Pitmen Painters.

Would it prove a renaissance for the National Theatre’s alternative space or would it mark a continuation of the Dark Ages?

Ah, that Cottesloe. It took ages to file out to the foyer in the interval. Andrew was bemused: he couldn’t recall the process being this tortuous. And then he realised that actually he couldn’t remember the last time he had stayed right the way through to the interval of anything there.

Anyway, Lee (Billy Elliot) Hall‘s play (inspired by a book by William Feaver) is based on the true story of a group of miners in the north east of England who in the 1930s invited artist and teacher Robert Lyon to tutor them in art appreciation. Struggling to gain any headway with the task, Lyon resorted to setting them practical art tasks which unearthed some extraordinary talent and resulted in the Ashington Group.

The play – a co-production between Live Theatre, Newcastle and the National – charts their story from the first class in 1934 through to the nationalisation of the coal industry after the war (seemingly for want of any other way to end it).

Hall mines a very rich seam of ideas and themes – class, socialism, the individual, responsibility, identity, freedom, patronage and the value of art.

The Whingers were particularly provoked into thought by Ben Nicholson‘s assertion that star painter Oliver Kilbourn was – despite working down a mine 10 hours a day – artistically freer than Nicholson who was shackled to his patrons.

This rung some bells with the Whingers who feel that perhaps their patronage of the theatre is not healthy for the artists involved and perhaps Mr Spacey and Mr Hytner should spend more time down a coal mine.

They also reflected that they themselves might be more creative if they didn’t spend so much time being patrons of the theatre. Perhaps, like Helen Smith, they should become too busy making theatre to see any.

Yes, lots of thought-provoking ideas but thankfully it is also very, very funny. The Whingers were utterly engaged within minutes and while it could have been a little shorter (it’s 2 hours 45 mins) their attention didn’t wander for an instant (apart from during the hymn at the end).

Phil (who claims to know something about art) claims that as a play it’s more figurative than minimilist, but given the quality of the writing and performances there’s nothing wrong with that.

There are lots of funny accent gags (which we laughed at, of course), some of them quite wincable (a mix up between peonies / ponies) but it somehow managed to never quite cross the line of being patronising (although the Whingers may not, of course, be the best arbiters of where the line lies).

It also narrowly avoids laying laying it on too thick, this is no impasto portrait of the group. And it’s packed with jokes and marvellous bon mots. Andrew now refers to Phil as “that middlebrow provincial realist”.

Most of it is set in a hall – think Stepping Out but with men instead of women. And no tap-dancing. In fact The Pitman Painters practically is Billy Elliot without the tap-dancing.

Andrew decreed it to be as thought provoking and inspirational as Sister Wendy (the nun, not the musical). And Phil was surprised by the attention to detail. In fact, he actually learnt something. For instance, he had no idea that Ben Nicholson couldn’t pronounce his Rs.

But most astonishing of all there was an event on stage which utterly eclipsed all the Whingers’ stagecraft preoccupations (live eating, live vomiting, live piano playing and live urinating and so on). The latest thing is live art!

It pretty much knocked the rest into a cocked hat when Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) actually drews a portrait of Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel) on stage – from scratch. The Whingers couldn’t quite tell if had been sketched in lightly underneath, but it was pretty impressive considering the actor had to deliver lines at the same time and a projection of the original drawing appears on screen at the end of the scene so the audience can draw comparison.

This is the most consistently enjoyable play the Whingers have seen in a long time, possibly the most engaging on stage in London at the moment. It’s the theatrical eqivalent of Monet’s Water Lilles, a real crowd-pleaser which deserves to draw in the punters.

Andrew’s now obsessed with lines such as “Art’s about you” (Andrew always believes things are about him anyway) and “everyone has a creative gift”.

In fact Andrew was so inspired he threatened to pick up his paint brushes again, and he hasn’t done that since his days painting along with Nancy. Expect to see Andrew sporting a rakishly angled beret behind an easel in the stalls near you very soon.

Footenote

An exhibition of some of the paintings is showing at the National. We missed it but will pop along.

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20 Responses to “Review – The Pitmen Painters, National Theatre”


  1. Old-fart fact: twenty-odd years ago I saw a student production of Nicholas Nickleby in which Nicholas and Smike were played by Ian Kelly and Lee Hall respectively.

  2. betsy Says:

    Hmm, not bad, you’re right. It’s funny, and there are a couple of really wonderful scenes between oliver and rutherford, and oliver and lyons…

    The ideas and arguments overwhelm the human story some of the time, though, and the writing does feel a little patronising at moments – though, to be fair, rich and poor are patronised equally… and twenty minutes less would make for a much sharper, better play, i suspect.

    Can i suggest you find your way to the touring production of Richard Bean’s ‘the english game’, which you may like as well… (no good plays for years, then suddenly two appear at once..)

    Or, if you feel you need to sharpen your critical teeth, Piranha Heights at soho is waiting.

  3. Bubbles Says:

    (Andrew always believes things are about him anyway)

    Only child?
    Sagittarian?
    Both?

  4. ian kelly Says:

    For the record; (dont usually read reviews, but its over for now, so…)

    YES I DO draw the picture, it IS a blank piece of paper. Even Tracy Emin dared to suggest I was tracing! (which is rich!)
    The play continues at the Lyttelton next year: by then, the picture might really be getting quite good, you never know.
    IAN KELLY (plays Robert Lyon)


  5. Ian – thanks for clearing that up. We thought the picture was brilliant anyway. The obvious question: what happens when your understudy has to go on?

  6. Deborah Tate Says:

    The play is fab but why not pay a visit to Northumberland to see the original Ashington Group Collection of paintings at the Woodhorn Museum. It really brings the story to life.
    Happy whinging!

  7. Sam London Says:

    Did you not feel a bit sorry for the actress who had to strip off at the end of part 1? You could have achieved the joke with her back to the audience, without having to take everything off. Every night. What a pain. But it seems to be unofficial policy at the National that all young actresses (but never the blokes) have to cavort around in very little, even when Nick Hytner isn’t directing.


  8. [...] The Pitmen Painters, now on its second run at the National, suffers from these same Hallmarks. Based on the solid gold story of The Ashington Group, a community of miners who started an art appreciation class in 1934 and went on to produce some extraordinary, luminous, class-busted paintings from a life in the pits, the play has a tendency to turn its characters into static mouthpieces for long, rousing paeans to the value of art, community and social change.  By the interval I was longing for Hall to embody his message rather more subtly and dynamically through the action and relationships in the play, although to some degree I admire his unfashionably strident soapboxing. And it is more justified in this play than his others; in 1945, one of the real group, Harry Wilson, said that “when I have done a piece of painting I feel that something has happened, not only to the panel or canvas but to myself”, and play does show the pitmen becoming something like possessed oracles, self-consciously striving to overcome their oppression by vocalising the symbolism and philosophy of their transformative art. [...]


  9. [...] The Pitmen Painters, now on its second run at the National, suffers from these same Hallmarks. Based on the solid gold story of The Ashington Group, a community of miners who started an art appreciation class in 1934 and went on to produce some extraordinary, luminous, class-busting paintings from life in the pits, the play has a tendency to turn its characters into static mouthpieces for long, rousing paeans to the value of art, community and social change.  By the interval I was longing for Hall to embody his message rather more subtly and dynamically through the action and relationships in the play, although to some degree I still admired his unfashionably strident soapboxing. And it is more justified in this play than his others; in 1945, one of the group, Harry Wilson, said that “when I have done a piece of painting I feel that something has happened, not only to the panel or canvas but to myself”, and play does show the pitmen becoming something like possessed oracles, self-consciously striving to overcome their oppression by vocalising the symbolism and philosophy of their transformative art. [...]


  10. [...] Painters – National Theatre By webcowgirl Has it really been only a year since I read The West End Whingers’ rather frighteningly enthusiastic review for Lee Hall’s new show? Personally, the idea of a [...]

  11. webcowgirl Says:

    I am feeling kind of sulky about it but you were right, this was a damned fine night out, and I didn’t even mind that I paid full price. See, there’s a reason I go to your blog for recommendations rather than bothering too much with the dailies – you get it right! (Except for Priscilla, but we can’t be in agreement 100% of the time or we’ll have nothing to argue about, and if we can’t bitch about each other’s wrongheadedness on at least a few small points, where will we be?)

  12. Suzanne Says:

    I saw this last night and it was *wonderful*.

  13. jan Says:

    Can anyone tell me if this is a play I would be comfortable with. I prefer family friendly type shows and I would love something with substance .

  14. Job Says:

    It’s the first play since The Weir that I’ve paid to see three times in the same production. Each time it’s revived it acts like a magnet. The cast is still pitch perfect.

    Ian Kelly never answered Andrew’s understudy question. Any news? I’m agog. We’re all gogs.

    • Billy Says:

      The poor old understudy just has to do the best he can and sweat his way through it. The ‘blank piece of paper’ however, has strategically placed pinholes which serve a rough guide and led Mss Emin to guess that Ian was tracing the image rather than drawing it from life.

  15. Billy Says:

    I should add that the play is fabulous and Mr Kelly’s draughstmanship is exellent. Cast, writing, direction and production are all second to none.

  16. jonathan church Says:

    I have just seen this performed in Cambridge. I found it pretty boring. It was just like Dad’s Army. The young, unemployed bairn was Pike and the old unionist was Mainwaring. Every scene was punctuated with a loud siren or an alarm of some kind, presumably to keep the audience awake. I’m glad I paid for the cheapest seat available.


  17. [...] The Pitmen Painters, now on its second run at the National, suffers from these same Hallmarks. Based on the solid gold story of The Ashington Group, a community of miners who started an art appreciation class in 1934 and went on to produce some extraordinary, luminous, class-busting paintings from life in the pits, the play has a tendency to turn its characters into static mouthpieces for long, rousing paeans to the value of art, community and social change.  By the interval I was longing for Hall to embody his message rather more subtly and dynamically through the action and relationships in the play, although to some degree I still admired his unfashionably strident soapboxing. And it is more justified in this play than his others; in 1945, one of the group, Harry Wilson, said that “when I have done a piece of painting I feel that something has happened, not only to the panel or canvas but to myself”, and play does show the pitmen becoming something like possessed oracles, self-consciously striving to overcome their oppression by vocalising the symbolism and philosophy of their transformative art. [...]


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