“This is the last chance for the Cottelsoe,” muttered Phil as the Whingers dilly-DALIed disconsolately towards the National Theatre last night.
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.
An exhibition of some of the paintings is showing at the National. We missed it but will pop along.