Note: discount tickets available: see this post for details.
Has it really been only a year since I read The West End Whingers’ rather frighteningly enthusiastic review for Lee Hall’s new show? Personally, the idea of a play written around the story of some nerdy rich guy going into the “deepest wilds of the Northeast” to edumacate the ignorati struck me as a blatant attempt to cash in on Hall’s very successful Billy Elliot formula (including the “based on a real story” tag line) – but with adult men and painting in the place of a cute kid and ballet. Still, it was the same, nauseating-slash-heartwarming “let’s show ’em what these hicks can do with a little encouragement” that Mr. Hall cranked out before, but with a framing (tee hee) high-culture device (“let’s learn about art!”) designed to draw in the kind of people who go for watching live theater (whom I imagine are not so much fans of the footie or whippet racing).
I hate shows that pander “feel good” ness and kept away from Pitmen Painters for a long time because of this – not to mention the fact the damned thing kept selling out, right up until it left the National altogether and went touring around England. Hall’s apparently got a sharp eye for what will keep the audiences filling seats, though – but given how I disliked Billy Elliot, that was neither a selling point nor a sign of quality. I did, however, like the paintings from the Ashington group that the National had displayed in its gallery during the earlier run, and, well, you know, the Whingers liked it (“and they never like anything!”) and it was the early booking period for the National and the first few days of the run the seats were discounted and … well, I bought some and went anyway.
I was cheered to discover upon opening my cast list that it’s actually still the original actors in the show – reedy redhead Ian Kelly in the role of Robert Lyon (“the teacher who learns from his students”), Christopher Connel as Oliver Kilbourn (“the artist who almost makes it but is held back by his pride and prejudices”), Phillippa Wilson as Helen Sutherland (“the rich woman who’s willing to look inside a person to see their true talent”), Deka Walmsley as George Brown (“the union guy who’s a stickler for following the rules”), etc., with the characters in the core group of “Pitmen painters” rounded out by “the hardcore socialist who insists on lecturing about economics,” “the simpleton” and “the obvious redshirt.”
It all seemed a bit like a sitcom, or perhaps a mining version of Gilligan’s Island, complete with Ginger, the Perfessor and Mrs. Howell. As each of the men walked on stage in the initial scene and displayed their “whimsical character trait,” I cringed inside. It was going to be just as trite as I feared! And Lyon even put in some “oh these Northern accents are so hard to understand” “comedy” bits. Gah! I’m American and I could understand what they were saying (um, mostly), there was no excuse for an Englishman to not understand what was being said.
But then … as they went into their first art lesson (clarifying that they didn’t have any interest in paintings of cherubs, i.e. no ability to appreciate art, and were far too underprivileged to have been to a library where they might have read about the Sistine Chapel, heavy handed “very poor and busy” banging by Mr. Hall) and then returned to lesson two, in which they had to paint … slowly I found myself leaving my bitter, jaded skepticism behind and getting into the play. I love art and paintings, and I would never make the mistake of thinking that people who work with their hands (and bodies) couldn’t appreciate it, or make it. And credit to Robert Lyon (or the character as portrayed in the play, as I have no idea how he felt in real life), because he was just as confident that his students could paint as any American would have been. And the discussions they had about the art they were making, and, later on, the discussions about what makes an artist, were absolutely relevant and true and useful and thoughtful as you could ever hope to have in an art class – in many ways, better than many college art classes because all of the people showing their paintings were really committed to what they were doing and not trying to score points for engaging in jargon or hitting the “what’s hot this year” charts.
The play is actually more than just discussions about art – a lot of it is building the atmosphere of a mining town in the depression years (and God, at the end, when the nationalization banner is raised, you can’t help but think how damned badly the people in this industry needed better than what their capitalist overlords had been willing to give them, and what a beautiful new society they hoped for – and, I hope, in some ways, got, after Great Britain took over the mines, and then again, wondering what this country has lost since Old Maggie undid all that), some of it is showing what the class attitudes were like then (and, to American me, explaining why even today English people burn with pride for being working class), and some of it more plot-like – a possible patronage/romance involving Oliver Kilbourn and Helen Sutherland (fictional, apparently) and some issues with Lyon possibly exploiting the miners to advance his own career (not sure if this is true or not). None of it was particularly deep or moving, but it did feel very real, and, you know, I really enjoyed it. And when I left I wanted to go home and cancel all of my nights out and just spend time painting. If it takes just two years to learn draughtsmanship, and if these guys could create they work they did after working the long hours they did, what, really, is my excuse for not being more of an artist? And that is some takeaway to get from a play. Needless to say, this is one I’ll be recommending, and will quickly put on my list of “theater to take out of town visitors” to, because it really was a good night out that needs no apologies for being enjoyable. In fact, I probably ought to get the book it was based on – William Feaver’s Pitman Painters – and maybe a set of acrylics.
(The Pitmen Painters continues at the National Theatre through September 22nd. Afterwards it moves to Newcastle, where it will play at the Theatre Royal for the week commencing September 28, 2009; thereafter it will spend a week each in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Milton Keynes, Salford, Sheffield, Norwich, Bath Plymouth. A version of the play is appearing at the Vienna Volkstheater from the end of April. The play will return to the National December 2nd through January 18th, 2010. More information about Oliver Kilbourn available at the University of Northumbria website; a history of the painters and the creation of a gallery at the Woodhorn Colliery on the Guardian‘s website.)