The Pitmen Painters tells the true tale of a group of Northumberland miners who took up painting and distinguished themselves enough to found a small movement, the Ashington School. The play, a production from London’s National Theatre presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, was written by Lee Hall after a book by William Feaver and directed by Max Roberts. Hall wrote the screenplay for Billy Elliot, and the two stories follow regular guys becoming artists against the odds. In Pitmen, set in the 1930s and 40s, it’s not simply circumstance that leads these men to art. Dilettantes in all but the mines, their intellectual curiosity and union bonds conspire, leading them to hire an art teacher for their next “project,” to learn about art, which they’ve never actually seen in life. Ironically, perhaps the physical restrictions and the mental strains of having to be ever-vigilant in the mines about the potential for death fed their insatiability for knowledge, their openness to experiment and question things.
The play is dialogue heavy, and the set consists primarily of a drab meeting hall and some folding chairs. But the underlying concept — that art has the capacity to shed light, to change things, is smartly emphasized with three screens featuring projections of, first, renaissance art, and later, of the work by the pitmen in the form of enlarged images of small works of art that sit on easels. Interestingly, these projections and the discussions they provoke take the place of what might be songs or dances in a musical theater version. (They also evoke many hours spent sitting in dark classrooms, scrutinizing slides of artwork and talking endlessly about them. In a good way.) It’s fascinating to see a slide show of the work that brought the group national notoriety.
The discussions about art and its purposes are refreshingly uncondescending. Led by Ian Kelly as the teacher, a technician who’s envious of his students’ given ignorance of technique (impressively, in real time he’s required to sketch a portrait), the men leap right into explicating each other’s work. Because they’ve essentially grown up together in the mines, they speak without hesitation or pretension, never stifling a rude observation. (“Dug coal together,” as Elmore Leonard wrote, to explain a huge amount of built-in forgiveness.) They raise solid questions about class differences and why make art to begin with, never taking the pat populist route that I fear might prevail if this were a production from the US, where art is routinely eyed with suspicion. And even when you fear that the story is about to turn cliche — like when Oliver, played by Christopher Connel, is about to take an irresistible offer from a patron (Phillippa Wilson) — the unexpected happens, quashing potentially predictable rags-to-riches and road-to-ruin scenarios.
The cast is a fine balance of drill sergeant and comic foil, completed by Michael Hodgson, Brian Lonsdale, Lisa McGrillis, Deka Walmsley, and David Whitaker.