This review of The Pitmen Painters, written by Cliff Greeley, first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.
As soon as we entered the Little Theatre for this fascinating play, we were there in the village at Ashington in Northumberland. In front of us were the green double doors of the entrance, while propped to the sides some folding chairs and a functional table were sufficient to suggest that we, the audience ranged on three sides of the floor, had dropped in for the WEA course and remained as onlookers as the real life drama unfolded.
This sense of involvement was key to the success of an enthralling evening and was typically evident when the tutor’s formal introduction of the group of painters at their first exhibition was greeted by a spontaneous round of applause from the audience. By this stage, we had moved to Gateshead with them.
To the ears of those of us born South of Watford, the authentic Geordie accents and the witty, if sometimes brutal, verbal sparring of working men from a tough mining community was brilliantly captured. Yet none of them were mere stereotypes and their reactions to events and each other could never be anticipated. Indeed, this was the main thrust of the play: this was a group of quite remarkable men whose success both together and as individuals defied all the odds. Whoever heard of miners painting
Andy Kirtley as George Brown, who doubled as union convener and WEA rep, created a character who was certainly officious in his dedication to the rule book and impatient with the lesser mortals around him, but who as a natural leader conveyed a tremendous feeling of commitment to the group. Likewise, Stuart Handysides as Harry, dental mechanic and obsessive Marxist, never irritated us and fully engaged our sympathies when he revealed the story of his experience in the trenches of the First World War.
Paul Morton as Jimmy, the professional moaner looking after Number One, nevertheless surpassed himself in his stout defence of the “Blob” as a suitable artistic offering to the war effort, while as the young lad desperate for a job and to better himself, Callum Bird displayed a sense of vulnerability blended with dogged determination which made his decision to enlist utterly credible.
The role of the more introverted Oliver whose work earned him the chance to go professional is pivotal to the play. Andy Howell brought out the inner strength of his character and there was an almost audible sharp intake of breath in the audience when with quiet dignity, he finally refused the offer of a stipend and the chance to go it alone.
In the central role of tutor, Robert Lyon, Chris Janes established a real sense of authority despite his baptism of fire when he arrived in Ashington for his first lecture. As the evening progressed, it was fascinating to observe his struggle between genuine enthusiasm for the group’s artistic output and his own personal ambition.
Jan Palmer Sayer as Heather Sutherland of Rock Hall, patron of the arts, swanned into the mining community with great aplomb and her Incisive critique of the miners’ art was most convincing as was her later decision to forsake the visual arts for ceramics. Just as Robert Lyon, she had her Achilles’ heel.
Two cameo roles were provided by Emma Muir as the delightful artist’s model who bared all to supplement her wages and Mark Haumann, the famous artist Ben Nicholson, whose sardonic sense of humour contrasted sharply with the earnestness of Oliver.
The challenges presented by a drama of this kind are, of course, very considerable. The very subject-painting is essentially static, the action takes the form of an innumerable succession of short scenes, while the playwright explores profound questions as to the nature of art and the place of art in society. The director, Andy Lee, handled all these deftly and we moved rapidly from moments which were highly comical to others which were deeply moving.
Clearly in writing this play, Lee Hall had a political agenda but for me, its heart lay in the very human story it had to tell and I should like to thank the whole company whose ensemble production held our attention and gave us much to think about.
Cliff Greely directed a number of plays for COPs in the 1970s. He taught English and drama and public speaking at Richard Hale and Cheshunt School where he served as Deputy Head. Photographs by Steve Beeston.