The two non-miners are Harry the “dental mechanic,” played by Michael Hodgson who’s there to get out of the house and away from his wife and a character only referred to as “young lad,” a boy who turns out to be smarter than he seems and who dreams of becoming a miner. Brian Lonsdale is excellent as the wide-eyed young lad.
Their teacher, Robert Lyon, at first seems confounded by his task as he drags in his slide projector with slides of paintings from the masters, but this doesn’t move the men. It is only by inviting the men to actually paint that he begins to open the world of art to them. Ian Kelly gives a spot-on performance as Lyon, the frustrated art teacher who ultimately revels in the work his students produce.
These men want to know about “proper art.” They want to be able to look at a picture and know what it means. George says “there must be a secret to it.” One of the most wonderful things about this play is watching these men who had absolutely no understanding of art coming to the revelation that art is something you feel rather than something you understand. These are rough men being asked to “feel,” perhaps for the first time in their lives. As they struggle to overcome their limiting and preconceived notions of what is and isn’t art, they begin to grow as artists. Lyon drives home to them “things don't have to be realistically depicted to have an expressive effect.” Reproductions of the actual paintings created by the original miners are used throughout the production and you marvel at the talent that these men of the earth possessed.
While the first act feels like an ensemble play, the second act focuses more on the character of Oliver and his potential rise out of the mines to the level of working artist. His character is the one miner who makes the most progress in his work as well as his career. He is introduced to a well-heeled arts patron, Helen Sutherland, played by Phillippa Wilson. She offers to pay him a stipend of two pounds and ten shillings a week. (He ultimately declines the offer.)
Thankfully the playwright doesn’t entirely gloss over the minor success of the rest of the men. They were referred to as the Ashington Group and their work was exhibited together in England, the Netherlands, Germany and China before finally finding a home in the permanent collection of the Woodhorn Coolliery Museum in Newcastle.
Set and costume designer Gary McCann has created a very cold union hall environment that realistically recreates what one might expect a union hall in Ashington, Northumberland, Newcastle upon Tyne to look like in 1934. Director Max Roberts has made an effective choice, as each of the miners puts their work on the easel for display, the painting is also displayed on a screen up center. When certain portions of a painting are discussed you see an close up of that portion of the painting on the two screens up left and up right. Roberts is to be congratulated for helping the actors establish these distinctly drawn characters and finding the humor in the piece. The Pitmen Painters is entertaining while still being enlightening and thought provoking.
The Pitmen Painters runs through November 14.