Writer: Lee Hall
Director: Gwenda Hughes
Reviewer: Carol Lovatt
An association between pitmen and painters does not automatically spring to mind, well, not painting as in artistic pursuit, as in creatively applying paint to canvas, but The Pitmen Painters currently in residence at the New Vic Theatre challenges the misconception as it tells the story of a group of pre-war men who took to the easel and created works of art that astonished the conservative elite of the time. They were working class miners who enrolled on an evening class to expand their minds and widen their knowledge and inadvertently became a celebrated group of artists who went on to exhibit their work nationally and internationally and whose legacy still resonates today as an example of the value of encouraging the link between labour and learning.
The New Vic prides itself on staging plays which have a sense of community and The Pitmen Painters fits that brief appropriately as it sheds light on the lives of individuals polarised by class and circumstance. Written by Lee Hall, the play is a political rallying call as it chronicles the plight of the working class in the pre-war era when class was distinctive and seemingly deterministic. With a strong and accomplished cast there are some powerful performances on stage. Simon Darwin who plays Harry Wilson, recites continually about the injustice of life with rhetoric inspired by Karl Marx, and he does so with authenticity and passion which cements a key theme of the play. The anger expressed by Oliver Kilbourn, played with raw determination by David Nellist, when he feels that he is imprisoned by circumstance and his own psyche, corroborates the reality in society that change can be a gamble with a potentially high price and it needs a steely courage to initiate it, something often too much to contemplate.
Bart Lambert who plays the young lad is also particularly impressive with his depiction of a troubled youth often patronised and undermined but one who seeks to fight his way out of the limits which society has placed upon him and Victoria Gould is regal and assertive in her portrayal of Helen Sutherland, the heiress who facilitated opportunity and exposure for the group. Gwenda Hughes has directed a play both gritty and emotive yet with a considerable amount of humour incorporated too. It is a story of individual lives with all the twists and turns associated with living in a particular culture at a particular time.
Using the authentic Northumberland dialect adds to the realism of the story but it was hard to decipher at times and the dialogue itself seemed contrived and unrealistic in part, clearly written with artistic license and imagination, unfortunately, some of it just does not ring true. As a result, The Pitmen Painters is a production which is interesting to observe but one that is somewhat hard going which sadly distracts from the essence of the story. As such, it is a play which will challenge and inform in equal measure.
Runs until Saturday 7th October.