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Pitmen Painters Review

High art and hard graft at the Grand

Written by . Published on August 24th 2011.

Pitmen Painters Review

I MAY be the only working class male who hates Lee Hall’s unbearably twee Billy Elliott (no, me too - Ed) but thankfully his play The Pitmen Painters is a million miles away from that sentimental bilge.

In the 1930s, miners thirsty for knowledge after 10 hours down the pit formed the Ashington group as an attempt to understand art, and then became a thriving artistic community.

"Hall’s gift in this work is avoiding a sanitised version of working class life as he reflects a pride in their camaraderie underground, but hatred of the cost it brings to their health."

We follow four of that group as they battle with their lack of formal education under the sympathetic tutelage of posh art teacher Robert Lyon. 

I thought this might be a tiresome play about hairy-arsed miners moaning about their lot - a Full Monty down the pits, so to speak - but instead it is a hugely funny work about the often fraught road to self-enlightenment. It's packed full of beautifully timed gags based on the inability of both sides of the class divide to understand each other.

But it's also a moving study of how tough miners, who started their trade as as children, wanted to educate themselves, and developed an appreciation that art is not something you can just learn.  You have to feel it.

The narrative is driven by Hall’s own journey from his working class roots which brings its own tensions, reflected in the sub-plot of the driven Oliver Kilbourn being offered a route out of the pit by P&O heiress Helen Sutherland. Watching the talented painter wrestle with his loyalty to his community against a need to paint full time is incredibly powerful

Hall’s gift in this work is avoiding a sanitised version of working class life as he reflects a pride in their camaraderie underground, but hatred of the cost it brings to their health. He also reflects the social conservatism in working class culture of the time.

The cast are uniformly outstanding really buying into the text, as if it is their own story they are playing out. 

The only minor flaw is that Hall seems less sure of his posh characters, and the Ben Nicholson cameo is laughably cardboard.

But gradually we understand these are proud working men who, despite their grinding poverty, would no more smash a window in a city centre then they would vote Conservative. 

In these troubled times, their determination to better themselves is a lesson for today’s morons wallowing in self pity who just take the easy route.

If you buy one theatre ticket this year then make it this one, because Pitmen Painters is laugh out loud funny, and you'll go a long way to see a better cast than this. 

I only wish the halfwits who ruined our cities could be forced to watch it and the penny might drop that education is a better – if harder way - to escape their seemingly pointless lives.

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


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