THE PITMEN PAINTERS
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 25th March, 2013
Lee Hall’s play gets off to a conventional start with a group of men turning up for an adult education class on Art Appreciation. They’re miners – apart from a Marxist dental engineer and a young lad who is unemployed – and their down-to-Earth plain-speaking and Geordie humour put their posh tutor in his place. It’s familiar territory, bringing to mind Educating Rita (the tutor shows them a slide, “A Titian!” Bless you! – that kind of thing), The History Boys, and also Art by Yasmina Reza. The characters – a comical bunch of contrasting types – have heated discussions about the nature and purpose of education and of art. It’s all very amusing and the comic timing is impeccable.
It’s all based on truth, a real group of working class painters from Ashington who achieved success during the 1930s and 40s. Their images are projected on screens and discussed. The pretensions of the art world are pricked and punctured, and it’s all rather engaging and enjoyable.
But, in the second act, things really get going…
Philip Correia is excellent as naive (in more ways than one) painter Oliver Kilbourn, who blossoms under Mr Lyon’s tutelage. This performance is the heart of the piece as Oliver struggles with an offer that seems too good to pass up, held back by notions of his humble origins and loyalty to his class. Correia brings sensitivity and passion to the role; his growing confidence and ability to articulate his ideas, his regret, anger and frustration at an opportunity missed. It’s entirely gripping to see and Correia is more than ably supported by Louis Hilyer as Lyon and Suzy Cooper as Lady Sutherland, Oliver’s would-be patron.
Riley Jones impresses as the young unemployed lad, on the fringes of the group. He also doubles as famous artist Ben Nicholson in a dazzling display of his versatility.
Nicholas Lumley is funny as stickler-for-rules George although most of the out-and-out funny lines go to Donald McBride’s Jimmy. Joe Caffrey brings intensity and humour to his role as the Marx-spouting dental engineer, and Catherine Dryden gets them all in a tizzy when she turns up as a life-model. Later we hear that she has abandoned her artistic pursuits – the all-too common story of opportunities forsaken. It’s a tight ensemble but for me Philip Correia is the stand-out performance.
Most of the characters survive the War and here the play becomes starkly relevant to us today in 2013. The post-war optimism of the working class in Britain has been obliterated by the likes of Thatcher and successive rotten governments (including “New” Labour). The play ends with the men looking forward to a better life for everyone after the massive sacrifices of the war, to the brand new NHS, to better aspirations for all, to nationalisation and shared ownership of the means of production… And I just sat there feeling sick and disgusted at what we had in this country and what has been taken from us and sold off, and how the people of this country have been hoodwinked and betrayed. An opportunity lost.
It’s a real kick in the teeth, perfectly delivered by director Max Roberts and Lee Hall’s script in a show that brims with warmth and humanity.