Pitmen paint a glorious picture

The start of the journey: Ashington's pitmen take the first steps to becoming painters under their teacher Robert Lyon. Pictures Keith Pattinson

The Pitmen Painters

Wolverhampton Grand

*****

IF you only watch one play this year then make it this one.

Lee Hall's finely crafted work is beautifully observed and written, brilliantly acted and full of humour, pathos and humanity.

It manages that rare combination of being wonderfully entertaining, deadly serious and uplifting all at once. Worthy and yet still fun. It is one of the best productions I have seen in a long time and shows what theatre is capable of creating.

It tells the true story of the Ashington miners who, through the Workers' Educational Association, were trying to fill in the education they had missed by going down the pit before they had even reached their teens. They had been through evolution, and a whole range of subjects already when in 1934 they voted for their next subject, Art Appreciation.

It was not appreciated by everyone.  Harry Wilson, (Michael Hodgson) a Marxist who was not even a miner – having been gassed on the Somme as he habitually told everyone – so he was now a dental mechanic. He had wanted an introduction to economics which he did not let people forget.

But the vote was for art so the group engaged an art professor to teach them in the hired, tired army hut in their Northumberland mining village.

The teacher Robert Lyon (David Leonard) was not a professor, not yet at any rate, merely a teacher and he soon gave up even trying to teach this group of cantankerous miners demanding to know why and the meaning of paintings.

Marxist dental mechanic Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson) explains his linocut, seen behind on the three screens while the young lad (Brian Lonsdale) insists there is hidden Freudian imagery in the pipe.

He could hardly understand what the men said initially, with Ashington a world away from the life of academia in Newcastle but he soon understood enough to realise that looking at slides of pictures by Titian were neither seen as art nor appreciated by pitmen so instead he persuaded the Geordie miners to appreciate by doing – learning by painting. Finding out what made art and artists tick by putting themselves in the shoes, or in their case, the boots of artists.

The result was a remarkable story of a  group of ordinary, uneducated working men who produced some extraordinary pictures capturing Ashington and the lives of miners both above and under the ground from their dogs, pigeons and allotments to the coalface and risks of death and injury.

The play concentrates on a handful of the men. There is Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker) perhaps not the brightest but one of the funniest of the group.

Asked if his picture was of peonies he replied: “No, flowers. I tried ponies once but it didn't work.”

And when their great supporter and patron local heiress and art collector Helen Sutherland (Joy Brook) first visited and asked to see some modern paintings Jimmy knowledgably told her: “You've come to the right place, pet, most of these were done this week!”

HIGHER AUTHORITY

There is George Brown, the leader of the group, obsessed with union and WEA bureaucracy and rulebooks with a paragraph and sub clause - or a referral to higher authority in Newcastle - for every situation.

Even he and all his rulebooks are thrown though when Susan Parks (Viktoria Kay) turns up as a nude model for a life drawing class. Jimmy is with her all the way though despite George's attack of the puritanical vapours while there is no way tea room worker Susan is going to miss out on her two and sixpence modelling fee so she gets her kit off anyway.

As the group's fame grows and they even stage exhibitions still simmering with political anger in the background is Harry, the Marxist dental mechanic, who saw everything as a symbol of the struggle of the working man against his capitalist oppressors. His bitterness comes out in a long speech about art, privilege and the working classes as the the play draws to a close on the eve of the coal industry becoming nationalised.

Then there was the young lad, (Brian Lonsdale), nephew of George, looked down upon because he was not a miner. The fact he could not get a job in the midst of a recession was no excuse – whatever the reason he was not a miner, not one of them.

And then there was Oliver Kilbourn (Trevor Fox), the most thoughtful and the most talented of the class. He lost his father in a pit accident, back broken in a roof fall, and then his mother left leaving him, at 14 and already an experienced miner, to bring up what was left of his family. His childhood and even his life had been stolen.

Soon the Ashington Group, working class, left wing and proud of it, had become the darlings of the art world, feted not only by Helen Sutherland but befriended by the likes of society artist Ben Nicholson (Brian Lonsdale again).

Sutherland paid for them to go to London to visit galleries where their favourite was Van Gogh who had been an preacher in a mining village in Belgium, had not started painting until his late 20s and only sold one paining in his life. Almost one of them. Art for art's sake.

As their fame grew Kilbourn was even offered a stipend of two pounds and ten shillings by Sutherland , four bob more than he made as a miner, to give up the pit and become a full time artist but after painful soul searching he finally refuses to leave the life and colleagues he knows with a powerful speech about class and art, the main themes of the play.

It was Kilbourn who made the observation about the working class not producing painters. “It is not because the working class don't have talent but because no one has given them a paint brush!”

And in his refusal to be bought, as he sees it, tells Helen Sutherland: “You cannot be an artist and be working class.”

There is anger, bitterness, frustration and a deep passion when he tells her: “We are from a different country. I am a pitman.”

The play is about class, about art, who owns it and even what it is but most of all it is about people, about humanity, about who we all are. It is about the fear of the miner of going underground, of the lost childhood of Jimmy, down the pit at 10 and of the death and injury that haunted every shift.

At  the end Gresford, the Miners' Hymn could be heard from next door as the colliery brass band practised and when first the pitmen painters and then the cast joined in with their hymn there were quite a few lumps in quite a few throats around the audience.

The hymn, incidentally, was inspired by the Gresford colliery disaster where 266 men died in the Wrexham pit in 1934. Only 11 bodies were ever recovered and the hymn was written by Robert Saint, a miner from Hebburn, 20 miles south of Ashington on the banks of the River Tyne.

The direction by Max Roberts keeps up the pace and is simple and straightforward with the inspired idea of three pull down screens to provide captions of what is happening and images of the paintings the men are discussing.

The set is equally simple and equally effective acting as everything from the hut to the National Gallery.

Four of the cast of eight, Walmsley, Whitaker, Hodgson and Lonsdale have been with the play from its beginnings at the Live Theatre in Newcastle Upon Tyne through the National Theatre and on to Broadway and back again

It has taken a long time to get this marvellous play to the Midlands and, thanks to Bill Kenwright, it has finally arrived. Don't miss it. It is what theatre is all about.

Roger Clarke

If you are ever up around the Newcastle area then the Ashington Collection, the paintings by the group are on permanent display at the Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Ashington. 

The Woodhorn Museum

The Ashington Group

 

Second shift hails a masterpiece . . .

*****

Once in while, a play comes along that makes you realize how important live theatre is. Lee Hall's ‘The Pitmen Painters' is a stone wall example of such a play. It is, like many of the paintings it unveils, a masterpiece.

The (true) story line, itself is interesting enough. A group of hardened North East miners attend a ‘Workers Education' class on ‘Art Appreciation'. Some are skeptical.

Most are in the dark about the high brow terms and references employed by their new mentor, Mr Lyon (David Leonard) but all of them see something they want to pursue and once the spark is ignited, the men produce works of art of a genuinely high standard - propelling them from coal face workers to art world celebrities of their day.

There are strong and driving themes here. Self advancement. The power of education. Self expression. All play a part but ‘Class' is dominant.  This is no stereotypical portrayal though. Hall makes no judgments on his character's ‘positions' in society - he merely presents them.

At times the classes mix - to great comic effect as in the scenes between the men and their ‘posh' teacher, but also touchingly as with the emerging love and respect between Miner, Oliver Kilbourn (Trevor Fox) and Art Collector, Helen Sutherland (Joy Brook).  Love almost transcends class - a triumph indeed of heart over status in society.

HILARIOUS DEBATES

The play looks long and hard at what constitutes art. Hall writes beautifully crafted and often hilarious debates on what art means, whether anyone or only a selected few can paint ‘with meaning', what means what in a painting to whom and the importance of the expression of individual ideas over technique.

There is also the issue of the place of art within the rigid confines of a working class ethos. Oliver Kilbourn, the most naturally gifted of the men, wrestles hard with his conscience when offered a ‘career' as painter but ultimately he can't betray or abandon his roots. Almost impossible to believe in these greedier times but testament to the man and his beliefs.

On a simple, wooden floored set the actors play their wonderfully defined and written characters with naturalistic charm and power. Trevor Fox as Oliver Kilbourn delivers a power house performance - beautifully still when required to be but equally capable of intense emotion and simmering passion.

Fox has presence in spades. Michael Hodgson, as the hugely bright devotee of all things socialist, colours his speeches and observations with infectuous energy - often getting laughs with the timing of his reactions and facial expressions as much as what he actually says.

Oliver Kilbourn's Saturday Night at the Club. Kilbourn who was the last survivor of the founding members of the Ashington Group arranged for the paintings to be put in trust prior to his death in 1993.
Picture by kind permission of the Ashington Group Trustees ©Ashington Group Trustees

Great comic timing too from David Whittaker as Jimmy Floyd who arguably has some of the funniest lines in the play. Deka Walmsley is spot on as the committee abiding, rule setting ‘jobsworth' - George Brown.  

David Leonard as the group's teacher has a somewhat tougher task as he has to contrast directly to the miners' more naturalistic delivery.  A well - heeled ‘posh' man amongst a group of tough talking Geordies could be a little hard for an audience to take seriously but it works - testament again to the honest writing and truthful performances. In a cast with no weak links, Joy Brook is the rather kindly and well meaning Helen Sutherland. Viktoria Kay is feisty and funny as Susan Parks and Brian Lonsdale impressively doubles up as the young lad and Ben Nicholson - two very different characters.

Max Roberts directs the piece with superb attention to detail and pace. Scenes flow seemlessly, linked with period music and sound effects. Flown in screens allow the audience to clearly view the paintings being discussed - an appropriate use of mulit media in an age when it is all too often used superfluously.

It is rare that plays are this good. The National Theatre saw that. Broadway saw it. I suggest, in the strongest terms, that you see it too.

Tom Roberts

And from the coalface . . .

***** 

EVEN if you have never met a coal miner or been near a pit, it's impossible to leave the theatre after seeing Lee Hall's award-winning play without feeling genuine admiration for the men who made their living toiling underground.

The action focuses on a group consisting mainly of pitmen from Ashington, Northumberland, who formed an art appreciation class through the Workers Educational Association in 1934 and hired a posh professor from Newcastle to teach them about it.

Eventually they began painting rather than listening and made such an impact with their pictorial record of life below and above ground that even the most avant-garde artists became their friends.

It's a fascinating story, full of humour, pathos, emotion and even anger at times as the proud men discover they don't need to be intellectuals to produce a work of art.

The Ashington Group collection is today found on permanent display in the gallery at the Woodhorn Museum in Ashington, Northumberland

And when one of the miners, Oliver Kilbourn, shows so much promise that wealthy art collector Helen Sutherland (Joy Brook) offers him more than he is earning at the coal face to paint for her, he faces a dilemma.

Trevor Fox gives a superb performance as Oliver who is reluctant to give up his job and friends for what, to many, would seem a great escape from drudgery, and he has a beathtaking scene when he pours out his heart to the attractive woman.

Stunning contributions, too, from Deka Walmsley (George Brown), David Whitaker (Jimmy Floyd), Michael Hodgson (Harry Wilson) and David Leonard (Robert Lyon, the 'professor').

And Viktoria Kay creates some hilarious clashes of morals when she turns up as nude model Susan Parks and, despite some protests, strips off.

This joint venture by Live Theatre Newcastle and the National Theatre, directed by Max Roberts, runs to Saturday night 04.06.11. A miner miracle.

Paul Marston

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