This rightfully acclaimed play by Lee Hall is on tour and arrives on the Derby Theatre stage shortly after the very successful production of Hall's other masterpiece 'Cooking with Elvis' and is enjoyed by a packed audience.
The Pitman Painters is based on a true story of a group of coal miners in the 1930s who embark on attending an evening class to study art appreciation. In the original group there were around forty attendees but for the theatrical version of events Hall has condensed the group down to five miners of varying ages and two women plus the art teacher. The play is set in Ashington in the North East but periodically travels down to London as the feted artist miners become well known and their paintings considered Modernist in style. The overhead projections of the art works that are created and critiqued, debated upon and discussed, all with innate intelligence and wit, add another dimension and knowledge bank to the play. The fantastic sound effects by sound designer Martin Hodgson bring the unseen and deafening noises of working men and ponies below ground very much to the core and fore of the piece. It is a play that educates, amuses and moves the audience every second of its vital performance and is acted to an extraordinarily high standard by the whole cast. There is nothing artificial in this artful show only human and artistic truths compellingly told.
The whole cast work as a seamless unit fluidly creating each scene within the body of the towering and stark industrial grey set. The half dozen folding chairs are used very imaginatively creating several new environments and become almost balletic in their shifting formats and percussion. The impressive set design is by former Nottingham Trent University graduate Gary McCann. Director Max Roberts directs as Artistic Director and founding member of Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne. The direction is exemplary.
Louis Hilyer playing the art teacher Robert Lyon commands the stage through his energy and the character's artistic fervour and the light and shade of the actor's subtle depiction is very believable. All of the miners characters are very well drawn by writer Lee Hall and the particularly difficult local accent of the Ashington area brilliantly done by every man playing the miners. You feel as though you are an onlooker into their private male community. Nicholas Lumley as George Brown charms as the older man of the group at once strict and abiding by his book of rules and the next giggling like a bairn. Philip Corella as Oliver Kilbourn delivers an inspirational monologue about the nature of creativity and is convincing in his indecision of accepting a stipend to leave the mining the community and paint for a living. Riley Jones (Young lad and artist Ben Nicholson) moves easily between sympathetic to paint splattered but entrapped aesthete and is equally convincing each role.
Joe Caffrey and Donald McBride (Harry Wilson and Jimmy Floyd) are like chalk and cheese, the righteous full on Marxist with a searing intellect and the gentle, dog loving humourist playing off each other throughout with their own beliefs and wit. Catherine Dryden brings out the wilful female in the aspirant life model Susan Parks and much laughter is had from the men's reaction to a potentially naked woman in their midst. Suzy Cooper is totally convincing as the art collector and patron Helen Sutherland. She carries the character with great poise and gives her a genuine warmth. Her disappointment at Kilbourn's choice of artistic journey is palpable.
"The Ashington Group", to quote Oliver Kilbourn, " were never a commercial group but preserved our idealism. We thought we were doing something that no-one else could do. We were depicting way of life below and above ground in a mining village that only we know by experiencing it. Life goes on and we paint life." This play explores the nature of art and the individual interpretation of the image through feeling and 'seeing as doing.' It looks deeply at personal politics and Politics, at inspiration and aspiration and it succeeds. Another great success on the Derby Theatre stage.