After seeing the pre-show publicity in my email inbox, I was a bit worried going into The Pitmen Painters that it would be a treacly, sentimental celebration of the “naive” working class artist; the fact that the playwright, Lee Hall, also wrote Billy Elliott only underlined that fear. Not that Billy Elliott was not a (feel-)good film, just that my own tastes run to the drier side.
My worries on that front, were, however, completely unfounded. While The Pitmen Painters deals with a subject very similar to Billy Elliott’s (the flowering of art within a working-class coal mining community in Northern England), its tone is a great deal less sentimental than the film’s, primarily because instead of telling an “overcoming the odds” story, it depicts how a small group of working-class men deal with their own insecurities and conflicts about what art is, what it means to make art, and what it means to be an artist.
Thematically, we’re in the same territory as John Logan’s play Red, and like that play this one contains a number of extended arguments and monologues about how art works, why art matters, how art gains meaning, etc. As in Red, these are often a bit too long-winded and too passionately felt, but at the same time it’s wonderfully bracing to be in the presence of people who care a lot, and deeply, about why art matters, to both the artist and the viewer. The Pitmen Painters also has the advantage over Red in that it puts those thoughts and speeches in the mouths of men in the process of discovery of both the power of art and their own talents, which makes their ideas about art feel fresh and immediate rather than preachy and self-serving. Still, in places the play feels overwritten, and where the first act moves along nicely, depicting the miners’ first forays into painting and their world-expanding initial exposure to high art (specifically, Van Gogh) at a London museum, the second act feels more like a dutiful retelling of the history of the group rather than a play. It’s not clear what the central conflict is. One of the men must decide whether or not to accept a stipend and become a full-time artist rather than a coal miner who moonlights as an artist, but the resolution of this dilemma doesn’t form a climax to the play, and most of the act consists of variations on the same argumentative themes already introduced in Act One.
What kept me going through the two and a half hour run time was the ensemble of actors playing the working-class coal miners (and “dental mechanic”) who formed the “Ashington Group.” The Pitmen Painters has some of the finest ensemble performing I’ve seen in town. Bernard Balbot, Simon Bradbury, Daryll Heysham, Larry John Meyers, and Alan Stanford are utterly convincing as a group of men who communicate with the kind of directness and honesty that comes of working in dangerous and exhausting conditions — as men who don’t have the time or energy or need to pussyfoot around. Hall’s characters are uneducated but not stupid, and the ensemble lets us see just how sharp and curious they are, without patronizing them or us. The dry, direct acting style employed by these actors nicely enhances the comedy of the play and works against the writing’s occasional tug toward the sentimental. As foil to these men, Brad Heberlee turns in a finely nuanced performance as the well-heeled, upper-class artist who has been engaged to instruct the coal miners in art, and whose own career gets launched on the basis of the group’s growing fame and success. The interactions between the working-class characters and the upper-class artist, and the ways in which they challenge each other (both intellectually and emotionally) are the heart of the play, and the excellent cast keeps it beating.