Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

PitmenPainters278r_TNScene from Lee Hall’s production of ‘The Pitmen Painters’ at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. From left are Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Deka Walmsley and David Whitaker. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK – "The Pitmen Painters" by Lee Hall is the latest British import to hit Broadway, and it is a compelling and entertaining look at a group of northern English coal miners who sign up for a union-sponsored art history course and end up becoming first-class painters themselves. Impeccably acted by a strong ensemble of English actors and insightfully directed by Max Roberts, it plays through Dec. 12 at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th Sreet.

Mr. Hall, who wrote the screenplay for "Billy Elliott" and the book and lyrics for its musical incarnation, was inspired to write "The Pitmen Painters" after reading art critic William Feaver’s book about these men, who were known as the "Ashington Group," named after the Northumberland town in which the miners lived. The 1930s and 1940s were a boom time for mining all over northeastern England; over a million miners went underground daily.

We meet Mr. Hall’s prospective miner students first in a drab union hall (atmospherically designed by Gary McCann) where they have assembled for their first class. They are a motley crew featuring: George Brown (Deka Walmsley), the inflexible and highly disciplined union leader; Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), a dental mechanic full of Socialist talk; and Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker), who has been mining since he was 10, which he tells us about in the play’s most profoundly moving speech. There is also the requisite misfit, George’s young nephew (Brian Lonsdale), who is unemployed and only attends the class to get out of the cold.

Their teacher, Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), from nearby Armstrong College in Newcastle, quickly recognizes that these men have no interest in his lectures on High Renaissance art and in viewing slides of the Sistine Chapel. After all, he was dealing with men who probably had never seen a painting or read an art book. Later, we learn that Ashington didn’t even have a library.

The miners would rather try their hand at making art. Every week, Professor Lyon gives each student a subject to paint, and the next week he brings in the completed work and discusses it before the class. Slowly, we see each miner individually discover his creative gift and become an artist.Soon,they are discovered by the haughty British art world, whose Rolls Royces thread through the narrow streets of Ashington on forays to view and buy the art. One wealthy patron, Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson), is most enthusiastic about the work. She funds a field trip to London so the miners can take in the city’s art galleries. She even becomes so admiring of the group’s most gifted pupil, Oliver Kilbourn, played with exemplary skill by Christopher Connel, that she offers to set him up in his own private studio.

In Act II, the play’s discussions about "What is art?" and "Who is an artist?" get a little talky; these fledgling artists turn into critics and give sophisticated speeches that do not always ring true. Yet in the end, you cannot help but be moved by these "Pitmen Painters" and the expert actors who portray them. You also can’t help but stop and think that these many years later, the long-dead "Ashington Group" still serves as a reminder of the importance of arts funding.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment