The Pitmen Painters is set primarily around the coal fields of Ashington, Northumberland, in northeast England during the years 1934-1948. There, a group of men belonging to the Ashington branch of the Worker's Educational Association (WEA) enroll in a class in art appreciation. Through the WEA and Durham University, painter and art instructor Robert Lyon (John Leonard Thompson) is sent to teach the group, composed mostly of coal miners. When the men, who have no formal training and modest educational backgrounds, are unhappy with the methodology of the course, Lyon has them create their own paintings as a means of developing an understanding and appreciation of art. Their connection to their own work in all its refreshing honesty, and their ability to discuss and analyze each other's work, have astonishing results in the art produced and the personal growth of the men who become known as the "Ashington Group" of painters. After a series of exhibits, their work became celebrated in the British art world of the 1930s and 1940s.
Playwright Lee Hall, who is mostly know for writing the film and musical Billy Elliot, has an affinity for writing about the English working class. He brings an ease and insight to the language of the characters in The Pitmen Painters. Their understanding of art takes on a new form when removed from the phrases used in over-intellectualized artistic analysis. What speaks to them is more tangible and immediate, and the writing reflects that incredibly well. This is not to say that the characters are neither bright nor passionate about ideals important to them as is shown in their discussions of art and its reflection of governmental and labor issues. (In real life, many of members of the Ashington Group were fierce supporters of The Independent Labour Party). Hall's well written scripts rests comfortably in the hands of the talented cast of this production.
John Leonard Thompson, as the instructor Robert Lyon, does a wonderful job showing his character quickly shift from tolerance of the group of men to appreciation. Coming from a world of academia, he carries a sort of inherent snobbery toward the project at hand. Yet, he quickly sees all the possibilities held by these men. In the end there is a genuine mutual respect. Kim Cozort as the wealthy supporter of the arts, Helen Sutherland, captures the right air and elegance, though she struggles with accent consistency.
Oliver Kilbourne (played by Declan Mooney) is the group member whose talent seems most promising. He battles taking a chance as a painter supported by Sutherland over the security in remaining a miner. His character is the most complete, and he shares a nice chemistry with Cozort in their scenes together. Dennis Creaghan as George Brown and Rob Donohoe as Harry Wilson colorfully argue policies and politics. Colin McPhillamy as Jimmy Floyd is quite funny as the fellow not quite as quick on the draw as his chums. The men in the cast all provide a feeling of familiarity that works well to flesh out their relationships with one another.
The production's scenic design depicts the modest meetings hall where most of the action takes place. Costume design by Erin Amico is a textural tableau of wools and tweeds on the men, and elegant dresses and rich tones on Kim Cozort as Helen Sutherland. Sound, perhaps because of the accents, is a bit of a problem as one has to strain to hear the actors. Projection work ably assists the display of pieces of art. One can not help but fall a bit in love with the story of this group of men and some of the deceptively simple paintings (all of them quite real) they produced.
The story of the Ashington Group as told in this play is largely true, with some of the characters the actual artists: Oliver Kilbourn, George Blessed, Jimmy Floyd, Harry Wilson, Len Robinson, Jack Harrison. By 1936 the group held its first exhibition at Armstrong College, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Their next exhibition was held in 1938 as an extension of the Mass Observation project. By the early 1940s the Group had exhibited successfully in London, and continued to thrive after Robert Lyon left to teach in Edinburgh. Over the next few years the work of the Group was noticed and praised by a number of prominent British artists and critics. After World War II, critical interest in the Group waned, but they continued to meet weekly, producing new art and taking on new members. The critic William Feaver met one of the Group's central members, Oliver Kilbourn, in the early 1970s, and began a renewal of interest in their work, which was featured in several touring exhibitions. In the 1980s the Group's "Permanent Collection" became the first western exhibition in China after the Cultural Revolution. The Group's meeting hut was finally demolished in 1983. Kilbourn, the last of the Group's founder members, arranged for the paintings to be put in trust prior to his death in 1993, and they are now kept in Woodhorn Colliery Museum.
The Palm Beach Drama Works production ofThe Pitmen Painters will be appearing at Don & Ann Brown Theatre through March 18, 2012. Palm Beach Drama Works is a professional not-for-profit theatre company hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors and actresses. Their goal is to engage and entertains audiences with provocative and timeless productions that personally impact each individual . The theatre is located at 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, FL 33401. For tickets and information you may reach them by phone at 561-514-4042, or online at www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Cast: George Brown: Dennis Creaghan*
Crew: Director: J. Barry Lewis**
*Designates member of Actors' Equity Association: the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
**Designates member of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.