Review: The Pitmen Painters

By John Nathan, May 30, 2008

Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1

Lee Hall is alive to the guilty, middle-class pleasure of watching the working classes broaden their cultural horizons. So in his comedy — partly fictional but mostly factual, about the coalminers of the pit town of Ashington, whose paintings became an art movement of the ’30s and ’40s — middle-class patronising attitudes get it with both barrels.

As with his hit Billy Elliot, Hall avoids sentimentality and uses comedy to remake his favourite political point — that culture is classless, or should be. Much of the pleasure in The Pitmen Painters comes from bridging the divide between Ashington’s all-male, working-class art appreciation group and Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), the posh tutor who has been hired by his pupils to teach them “what to think” when they see a painting. Instead of lecturing, Lyon gets his class to create. The stunning results reflect the pitmen’s lives above and below ground. The art establishment comes knocking.

Hall lets us bask in the feelgood factor of miners overcoming class prejudices until Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel) makes a dignified attack on Lyon for presenting their work merely as evidence that anyone can paint. 

Max Robert’s production particularly scores in allowing the art, the space and silence to create its own drama.  And although Hall has covered much of this territory before, much like the pictures in his play, this work of art is enlightening, accessible and rather beautiful. (Tel: 020 7452 3000)

Last updated: 9:23am, May 30 2008