Monday, October 4, 2010

Mining Art

The Pitmen Painters (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Pitmen Painters

Written by Lee Hall
Directed by Max Roberts
Starring Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly, Brian Lonsdale, Lisa McGrillis, Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker, Phillippa Wilson

September 14-December 12, 2010
Friedman Theater, 252 West 47th Street

Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters, which recounts the unbelievable but true story of a group of Northern England coalminers who became unlikely artists during the 1930s and ‘40s, is filled with enough humor and heartbreak to hit home. Hall knows the story intimately, hailing from Newcastle—which begat another Hall baby, Billy Elliott—and that empathy helps smooth over the rough patches in his writing.

The Pitmen Painters is based on the Ashington Group, five men with no training whose interest is piqued when they take a free art-appreciation class given by the miners’ union. Their teacher suggests that, to best learn about what art is, they should begin painting themselves. This they do, first drawing what they know—the coal mines—then painting more imaginative works. The result is popularity beyond Northumberland, including an exhibition of their work, the interest of art buyers from other parts of England and even a thumbs-up from contemporary artist Ben Nicholson, who makes a brief appearance.

It’s too bad Hall never clearly defines his characters as separate individuals; one barks clever put-downs, another is painfully sincere, still another spouts socialist platitudes. Of these Ashington men, only Oliver Kilbourn is allowed an existence away from the others, getting the play’s most dramatic scenes when deciding whether to paint full-time (thanks to a weekly stipend from an admiring—and wealthy—aficionado, Helen Sutherland) or remain working in the mine, as he’s done since he was a young man, with the others.

Hall does bring up provocative questions about the nature of art and its creation, but his writing sometimes becomes didactic, notably—and most damagingly—at the climax of each act. Before intermission, the men discuss being overwhelmed by their first look at great paintings, notably those of Van Gogh, who (hint hint) didn’t make money as an artist and wasn’t appreciated until after his death. And at the end of the play, politics comes to the fore: there’s much commenting on socialism throughout, but only here does Hall tackle it head on, as it were, as the men become outright revolutionaries who celebrate the beginning of nationalized health care. That socialism concentrates on the group rather than individuals might be Hall’s excuse for not creating clearly delineated characters, but it’s doubtful that’s what he had in mind.

Still, there’s much to admire in Max Robert’s fast-paced production. The men’s paintings themselves have a starring role, both in reproductions onstage and as slides of the actual artworks that pop up on screens above the stage at opportune times, allowing us to get a better look at what they are discussing. The entire cast—which has been performing in the play since its Newcastle premiere a few seasons back—has been retained, and there’s not a weak link among these men and women. Although Christopher Connel has the showiest role as Oliver, the painter with true talent, the entire octet makes Hall’s dialogue snap, crackle and pop, transforming these people from mouthpieces into engaging individuals.

Whatever its shortcomings, The Pitmen Painters earns the audience’s indulgence and good will by its fascinating true subject and its sympathetic cast and director.

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