Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 30, 2010
The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall. Inspired by a book by William Feaver. Directed by Max Roberts. Scenic & costume design by Martin Hodgson. Lighting design by Douglas Kuhrt. Sound design by Martin Hodgson. Cast: Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly, Brian Lonsdale, Lisa McGrillis, Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker, Phillippa Wilson.
Max Roberts’s Live Theatre production — which was first picked up by London’s National Theatre and now the Manhattan Theatre Club, which is presenting it at the Samuel J. Friedman — propels itself doing what the stage Billy Elliot could not: probe the hearts and minds of everyday people and find out what makes them remarkable. The members of its rollickingly good cast (from the original 2007 Newcastle production) are both believable as ordinary laborers, who risk their lives in the Northumberland underground, and the secret dreamers who take advantage of a Worker’s Educational Association art appreciation class and discover facets of themselves they never knew they possessed.
That balance, admittedly dictated by Hall (who took his inspiration from William Feaver’s book-length exposé of the painters), is crucial, for without it you’d never accept this play as anything but a string of coincidences that could never have happened in real life. (They did, but no matter.) You may accept the setup, in which the tiny collection of men are inspired by their teacher, Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), to take up brushes when it becomes obvious the language of the High Renaissance masters is not also theirs. But the success they find, first on a small scale, and later with a very interested patron, Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson), would probably stretch credibility too far. Who can believe that these scribblings of whippets, street corners, and distorted-perspective humanity really took the English art world by storm?
Seeing so many of the paintings projected as part of Gary McCann’s set design helps a great deal. But what really drives home both the story and its inherent truth is that what the so-called Ashington Group saw as art was seen by those “above” them as merely a social statement. How much of Helen’s interest, particularly in the products of the group’s foremost natural talent, Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel), is due to the works’ quality and how much is related to her belief she’s doing “the right thing” is a key open question. And when it starts to appear that even Robert may be using the miners, Hall deftly makes you wonder whether any of the effusive praise you’ve heard — or may be feeling yourself — can or should be taken at face value.
It’s at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second that Hall most adeptly wields this weapon, putting the men in a series of situations (viewing Helen’s exquisite personal collection, attending a show at the Royal Academy, or displaying their own works themselves) that focus on who these men are and how their journey has landed them where it has. Watching each of them become seduced by the abilities they’ve discovered, and then by the possibilities of what they may do with them and what this means for their careers in the mines, is absorbing as far too few stories like it are. Roberts’s intense production makes it clear they’re confronting themselves, the upper class they’ve long detested as easily as they breathe, and the deep gulf in between, and learning how all three inform their art and their lives. It doesn’t take long for a simple concept to become astonishingly complex.
Unfortunately, the interplay of those two elemental forces causes The Pitmen Painters to collapse as it nears its finale. The creeping undercurrent of socialism that gives these left-minded thinkers their reason to live and the play its tangy punch in the abstract becomes more accusatory and dramatically disruptive the more specific it gets. By the last scene, they’re not artists at all, but revolutionaries celebrating the dismantling of the British class system and the advent of nationalized health care. By presenting as a grand achievement the destruction of their individualism, Hall robs us of our ability to see these people as finding uniquely personal ways to represent themselves, and instead makes them one-dimensional mouthpieces for a viewpoint that — to put it charitably — is not universally beloved in the United States. Turning distinct, serious souls into a collective parody is a triumph how?
If one wishes the conclusion demonstrated the courage of the earlier scene’s convictions to make such points more subtly, that buildup is so satisfying that the last-minute careening off the road matters surprisingly little. You come away with an appreciation of the unanticipated and a deeper understanding of the standards by which you judge others. Hall presents life unvarnished, yes, but he’s also sketched out a blueprint for how we can change it for the better: by adjusting our attitudes toward those who aren’t like us, in way we may not have considered. That brings us into complete union with the people onstage, and the Ashington Group that for 50 years accomplished what everyone said it couldn’t. The Pitmen Painters may raise those men to greater prominence, but its finest accomplishment just may be to elevate us to something more than we may have imagined possible.