AS LEE Hall’s latest triumph, The Pitmen Painters, opens at The Grand, Paul Clarke talks to Joy Brooks, who plays heiress Helen Sutherland.
"In this day and age with all these riots going on I think it’s a really pertinent play. That’s what we've lost as a society; aspiration on behalf of kids who don't know they can be whoever they want to be."
A lot of people might not be familiar with the story of The Pitmen Painters…how would you sell it to a Leeds audience?
For a kick off, it’s a comedy. It’s a very funny story about a group of miners in the 1930s – a true story – who started to take part in classes through the Workers Education Association, and they wanted to do art appreciation.
The got a very posh guy in to teach them and they began painting. They became artists, they had exhibitions and they sold a load of paintings. They were still miners during the day, and after they'd finished their 12-hour shifts they’d go and paint.
It doesn’t sound like it's funny, but it’s a really, really funny piece.
I had the impression it would be a play about a load of hairy-arsed miners moaning about the class struggle, but it’s a bit more fun than that is it?
In the first scene you see them all getting ready for their first lesson and Lyon, the professor, comes in; that scene is a classic of people not understanding what other people are saying. You have the miners going about their business and admitting their ignorance about art, but wanting know more about it.
Then you have the posh guy coming in, and he doesn’t understand what they’re saying, they don’t understand what he's saying and it all gets quite fraught.
It’s lovely piece to perform because the writing is spot on.
It’s had unbelievably good reviews and is written by Lee Hall, who famously wrote Billy Elliott. Do you think he has a talent for giving the working class a voice?
It’s what he does very well because it’s kind of his story. Lee was a working class kid and he was obviously very, very bright. He got involved in live theatre, writing as a kid and then went to Cambridge.
Suddenly he had access to high art and got a great education. I think that's pivotal in everything he writes; about having aspirations and being allowed to achieve no matter where you are from. It’s true in Billy Elliott, and it’s true in Pitmen.
It’s about these guys discovering they can do this. That with the right person believing in them they can achieve as much as anyone else.
In this day and age with all these riots going on I think it’s a really pertinent play. That’s what we've lost as a society; aspiration on behalf of kids who don't know they can be whoever they want to be.
There are some lessons to be learnt here, that you can change your destiny, albeit with good support. Although it is set in the 1930s there are some interesting parallels drawn out in this work.
I think if you look around the cast, every one of us is a working class kid who because the system changed meant we could go to drama college or university, and be something our parents never expected us to be.
We are living examples of what this play is about, and that makes it really personal to perform. It’s so relevant; if you have the right support you can achieve whatever you want if you set your mind to it.
They talk about the poverty trap and that’s absolutely right, but if you have aspiration you can get out of it. It’s the people who just hunker down and don't believe anything is going to happen who are screwed really.
Can you give us a sense of your role to reassure us that Pitmen is not just an uber macho play, but one with some interesting work for the female characters too?
It’s interesting because all the miners, apart from one, are married but we never see their wives. It was a masculine club; they worked all day, got washed, had their tea and went to the club. That was all men.
There are two female characters in the play. I play Helen Sutherland, who was the heiress to the P & O line. She lived in Northumberland and was a patron of the arts. That’s how she spent her money; encouraged artists, and was a major benefactor for Ben Nicholson, who was married to sculptress Barbara Hepworth.
In real life she was introduced to the miners by Lyons, and she offered them a way out. She pays for them to go to London to all these galleries, staying in hotels and being introduced to the art set. These guys had never been out of the pit village.
She was a woman unlike any they had ever known. She was her own woman, didn't answer to a man. If she wanted to do something she did it and it was a complete shock to these guys.
She takes a shine to Kilburn and wants to become a patron to him, and for him to give up mining. That’s one of the core struggles of the piece; whether he turns his back on mining to become an artist or does he turn down a potential benefactor.
The only other female part is Susan Parks, who is a life model. The guys turn up at one of their evening classes and there is a girl threatening to take all her clothes off. Some of them have never seen a naked woman.
So the female perceptive in this play is two women who they would never, ever encounter in their lives, and how the men react to that.
As you are Yorkshire born and bred (Scarborough), do you think the Grand audience will be receptive to this sort of work?
I love being home. It's brilliant to come to Leeds as I love it as a city. We always used to go there on a weekend shopping on the train, and it was very exciting.
It's great to play Leeds because there’s something unique in coming to the North East - and I'm including Yorkshire in that - because there is a warmth and receptiveness to the theatre here.
Yorkshire has such a great tradition. The Crucible in Sheffield, West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Stephen Joseph and live theatre up in Newcastle...it’s got a really strong theatre which has sort of been lost in the rest of the world.
Down south they are closing theatres at an alarming rate, and it’s brilliant Yorkshire is still managing to keep it alive. It’s a huge thing in this day and age when people struggle to afford to go to the theatre, and put any bums on seats to be honest.
The Pitmen Painters runs until Saturday 27 August and tickets are can booked via the Box Office on 0844 848 2706 or at www.leedsgrandtheatre.com