Show playwright Lee Hall a blue-collar bloke, and he'll give you someone ready to reveal his inner artist. In "Billy Elliot," it's a miner's son who becomes a dancer. Now, in his warm and wonderfully acted play "The Pitmen Painters," it's a group of coal diggers who express themselves brilliantly with brushes and oils. The story, drawn from history and a book by William Feaver, is a prequel of sorts to "Billy Elliot."
The action spans 1934 to 1947, the year English mines were nationalized, in the thriving coal community of Ashington, near Newcastle. In a series of humorous and knowing vignettes, Hall follows a motley assortment of men who work underground in the pits as they reluctantly seek self-improvement in an art-appreciation class. Their first choice, economics, didn't pan out.
The lessons get off to a shaky start, and genial instructor Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) immediately hits a brick wall. The men know little about art, but doggedly reject the notion that a painting, drawing or shade of green holds meaning. "If you're going to be so rigid about it," Lyon says, "you should do it yourself." It's an a-ha! moment (slightly overplayed), and soon Lyon has the miners making art and commenting on each other's work. They're quick studies, and one thoughtful coal man, Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel) comes to stand out as a genuine talent. In time, the group exhibits their creations in important galleries.
Hall juggles themes of class and creativity, but his major subject is the power of the group, personal and political. That power is tested in the play's darker second half, when a wealthy divorcee and art collector offers to pay Kilbourn to paint full time. His struggle with leaving his community is played against a development involving Lyon, who uses the group's success to advance his career. Hall, in a rare miscalculation, has Kilbourn critique his teacher in a scene that comes across as overly sophisticated.
There are uniformly stellar performances from the terrific cast, who reprise roles for Manhattan Theatre Club that they played in 2007 in Newcastle and a subsequent run at London's National Theatre. Director Max Roberts' assured staging is crisp and clean, with noisy blackouts that are reminders of the men's dangerous, backbreaking jobs. Large projections of their paintings used throughout the 2¼-hour production smartly underscore the transformative and expansive nature of art in any life.
It sounds like a backhanded compliment to call "The Pit men Painters" heartwarming -- as if this somehow implied the show is nice but unsophisticated.
But while there's no denying that this play, about English miners learning to paint, will warm your cockles, it's also smart and inspirational in a way that never panders to the audience.
This isn't a surprise, considering the author is Lee Hall, whose superb book for "Billy Elliot" was also set among the coal-digging working class, and also featured people being transformed by art. And in a journey that parallels the plot, the "Pitmen" cast has traveled with the play from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the UK's coal country, to London's National Theatre and now Broadway.
Based on the true story of the so-called Ashington Group, named for the town in which it started, the play follows five men from England's industrial north, most of them miners, after they sign up for an art-appreciation class in 1934.
"Art has to say something," asserts Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), a socialist who works at a dentist's office. Hall obviously agrees that plays have to say something as well, but he's an entertainer, not an ideologue.
The first act is a flawless demonstration of his approach. In a series of fast-paced, thought-provoking scenes, the new students and their instructor, Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), discuss the paintings they've undertaken themselves. The exchanges are as eye-opening as they're lively, and you get swept up by the men's excitement.
The group attracts the interest of a wealthy patron, Helen Sutherland (Philippa Wilson), as well as modest fame. The balance of the personal and the political is just right in the show, and you have to marvel at how good British theatermakers are at this stuff -- even if Hall sometimes overidealizes a world in which a 10-year-old boy could be sent off to the mines.
Unfortunately, Hall trips in the second act, when he largely abandons the collective to focus on the individual – more specifically, Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel), the miner who comes closest to becoming a full-time artist.
Instead of the galvanizing multipart exchanges that made the play's beginning crackle, we get lengthy one-on-one scenes pitting Oliver against either Mrs. Sutherland, who moves on to new interests, or Lyon, who exploits his connection to the miners. What was zippy and illuminating earlier is now ham-fisted and drawn out.
Still, Hall gets enough right, and by the end, it's practically impossible not to root for "The Pitmen Painters" -- both the show and the characters.
The debating never stops for the title characters of “The Pitmen Painters,” Lee Hall’s feisty adult education class — I mean history play — about a group of aesthetically adventurous miners in Northern England. These are among the questions posed, and answered and considered and fought over, many times. (By all means, feel free to take out a pencil and jot down your own responses):
Just what is art? Does its meaning lie in itself or in those who look at it? Can art, or should art, be political, and if so, how is that achieved? What are the merits of abstract versus representational art? What is the difference between a work of art’s worth and its value?
But the question that feels most pertinent to this play, which opened on Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, has to do with individually representing real-life characters who are best known for being part of a group. This issue, too, is addressed many times in Mr. Hall’s drama, at least indirectly.
As one of the paintbrush-wielding miners says, after hearing a speech celebrating his achievements and those of his fellow working-class artists: “It’s easy for people outside to see us as a bunch of miners. But we don’t see ourselves as that. We see ourselves as individuals, don’t we?”
Mr. Hall, who wrote the screenplay for “Billy Elliot” and the book and lyrics for the musical it inspired, is brave to raise this issue. For in doing so, he is laying bare a problem he has not been able to solve as a dramatist. All of the men (and the two women) in this well-acted British production, imported to Broadway by the Manhattan Theater Club with its original director (Max Roberts) and cast, have surface traits and quirks to call their own. Yet only one of them could be considered a fully defined character. Otherwise, they’re a set of human talking points in period costume.
The British theater seems to be doing its damnedest to school Broadway theatergoers in 20th-century art. Last season gave us the Donmar Warehouse production of John Logan’s “Red,” the Tony-winning drama about the abstract painter Mark Rothko. Now there is “The Pitmen Painters,” inspired by William Feaver’s book about the Ashington Group, which emerged out of an art appreciation class in a provincial Northumberland coal town in the 1930s and ’40s.
Certainly there is much to admire in “The Pitmen Painters,” a popular success in its native land, where it moved from the Live Theater, in Newcastle Upon Tyne, to the National Theater in London, where I saw it two years ago. Written partly in response to cuts in arts endowments and education, “Pitmen” belongs to a fine old British tradition of establishment-challenging theater. And there’s no denying that Mr. Hall makes a valiant case for art as a fruitful stimulant to sleepy minds.
Yet in following the evolution of his classroom of painters, a group of miners (and one dental technician) who are taught by an art historian, Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), “The Pitmen Painters” itself often feels like the work of an intelligent and virtuously self-conscious teacher, determined to present all sides of an argument.
“Art isn’t about answers,” Lyon says in his first encounter with his class. “It’s about asking questions.”
From the beginning, his students are exceptionally willing to follow this dictum, with an eloquence that doesn’t quite tally with the assertion that some of them had no formal education after the age of 10 or 11. Initially there’s some cute rusticversus-cosmopolitan humor. (When Lyon says “Titian,” one of the miners says, “Bless you.”) And Lyon realizes that an academic survey of the Renaissance is not the way to win his pupils’ hearts and minds.
But once he has changed his course plan from having his students merely looking at art to actively creating it, the pitmen prove themselves surprisingly fluent in dialectical debate. And though each has been given a type to embody (from Doctrinaire Marxist to Callow Young Man), many of their lines could be interchanged without our noticing.
This is particularly true in the first-act curtain scene, after the painters have visited London museums for the first time and speak in a rhapsodic litany, completing one another’s sentences, about what they have learned. (This is essentially that art allows you not “to put up with what you’re given” and to transform yourself by putting your vision on canvas.)
The scene is enacted with the melodic, sentimental gravity at which the British theater so shamelessly excels. But it doesn’t exert the emotional pull of the similar epiphany of a boy discovering himself through ballet in “Billy Elliot.” As fine and as grounded in authentic detail as the ensemble performers are, they often blur into an abstract, almost Brechtian chorus of voices.
The first-rate actors playing Lyon’s students are, for the record, Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Brian Lonsdale, Deka Walmsley and David Whitaker. (The ensemble is rounded out by Lisa McGrillis as a life-drawing model in the show’s most sitcomish scene and Phillippa Wilson as Helen Sutherland, a rich art collector.) And if their performances are a shade broader than when I saw them in London, Mr. Roberts has steered them into a gratifyingly in-sync ensemble, of sprightly pace and (especially given their characters’ local accents) clarity.
That only one of these men, Mr. Connel’s Oliver Kilbourn, emerges as a complicated soul, who undergoes a particular rather than a generic transformation, is by no means the other actors’ fault. Mr. Hall has given Oliver, the most innately cerebral of the bunch, not only the complete arc of a story line but also a mode of self-expression that seems specific to him.
Oliver’s scenes with Lyon and Helen tremble with a yearning and awkwardness, infused with a crippling class consciousness and a subliminal eroticism that dare not identify itself. In those moments “The Pitmen Painters” stops being an “on the one hand/ on the other hand” lecture; it becomes excitingly ambiguous, in-the-moment theater, as rich and intriguing as Art (as we are told here) is meant to be.
Gary McCann’s set and costumes and Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting evoke time and place with attractively spare efficiency. And they have provided an elegant frame for the projections of work by the real pitmen painters.
You may remember that facsimiles of Rothko’s work were used in “Red,” but in that production you felt a visceral connection between the art and the painter, memorably embodied by Alfred Molina. Here you rarely think that only that man — and that man alone — could have created the painting you’re looking at. The art in “The Pitmen Painters” remains, like the play, illustrative, informative and confined to its frame.
The heroes of the London import The Pitmen Painters (* *), now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, also defy social convention and demonstrate the inequity of the British class system. Lee Hall, Billy Elliot's screenwriter and the lyricist/librettist for the musical adaptation, based the text on William Feaver's book about the Ashington Group, real-life coal miners who gained unlikely celebrity as artists in the 1930s and '40s.
We meet the miners, as well as a dental technician and a lad on the dole who join them in an art appreciation class. We watch as their long-dormant creative gifts and folksy wisdom shock and amaze the fussy academic who teaches them, and then everyone else — even a chichi matron with a worldclass art collection, who may have a thing for one of the pitmen.
Suffice to say that Shaw, this ain't. Hall fairly bludgeons us with his populist message, and the characters can border on cartoonish in their conformity to broad, familiar stereotypes. Still, the actors are game and adroit; standouts include Michael Hodgson, wryly appealing as a wisecracking socialist, and Brian Lonsdale, who does deft double duty as the unemployed young man and an effete painter.
As the sensitive miner who intrigues the matron, Christopher Connel has the most to work with and comes closest to resembling a flesh-and-blood human being.
Generally, though, Pitmen Painters' imitation of life is something less than art.
Here it is, only the beginning of a new theater season, and Broadway already has a feel-good -- make that a feel-great -- hit in "The Pitmen Painters." Scribe Lee Hall draws on the same inspirational themes that served him so well in "Billy Elliot the Musical" with this heartbreakingly funny play about a group of Northumberland coal miners who in 1934 sign up for a union-sponsored art appreciation course and become the darlings of the U.K. art set. Max Roberts' helming is flawless, and bully for Equity for preserving the extraordinary ensemble of character actors from the original British production.
Everything about this show, from the depressingly bare union hall where the miners meet for their weekly classes to the rough regional dialect with which they assault the tender ears of their upper-class instructor, says: This is real. This is life.
In fact, Hall took his inspiration from a book art critic William Feaver wrote about the art collective known as the Ashington Group, whose member artists (reduced in number here for dramatic purposes) took their name from their hometown in Northumberland. In the 1930s, hundreds of mines were operating in this northeastern region, sending more than a million men underground to work 10-hour shifts in the pits.
In this gritty environment, it seems a miracle that an insular community like Ashington could produce a bona-fide talent like Oliver Kilbourn, the muscular painter played with devastating impact by Christopher Connel -- let alone a whole labor collective of miner-artists.
Many of the men from this part of England, like Jimmy, the not-too-bright workhorse played with disarming good humor by David Whitaker, left school at 10 to work underground. "I was scared stiff, I was," he says of the dangerous job he performed in pitch darkness, in a moving speech that pours out when he loses himself in contemplation of a white-on-white abstract painting.
Some men, like George, the stern disciplinarian played with scowling conviction by Deka Walmsley, found greater meaning in their lives by working for the union -- the union that will abandon them all when the mines start shutting down. Given his rigid work ethic and inflexible moral code, it's great fun to watch George get apoplectic when the teacher brings in a model (a saucy turn by Lisa McGrillis) to pose nude for a life class -- and a joy to see him on a field trip to the London art galleries, rapturously responding to traditional Chinese art at the Royal Academy.
Other miners take heart from their Socialist political principles, like Harry (a wonderful thundering perf by Michael Hodgson), the blustery dental mechanic whose lungs are so shot from being gassed in the muddy trenches of the Somme that he's not fit to work in the mines. And some men can't find work at all, a curse borne in humorous agony by Brian Lonsdale as the Young Lad who shows up in class to keep warm.
They may never have seen a painting or even read a book (there's no library in Ashington), but they are all proud men. "We're very punctual, we are miners," George loftily informs their tardy tutor, Robert Lyon, who both nurtures them as artists and exploits them to advance his own career -- and has the grace to look guilty about that, in Ian Kelly's subtle perf.
So, what kind of artists are they, anyway? Amazing, actually. Their deeply felt and boldly expressed paintings -- projected on three large hanging screens -- depicting scenes from their lives are proof of Lyon's conviction that culture is not the exclusive preserve of the upper classes, that "fundamentally, underneath, anybody can have a creative gift."
Ironically, it's Lyon's own star pupil, the genuinely gifted Oliver, who puts the lie to that patronizing line of B.S. "It's talent, isn't it?" challenges Oliver, whose astonishing portrait of a heavily pregnant mother and her desperately clutching child could hang in any gallery.
In his emotionally blistering perf, Connel captures every shade of feeling that art brings out in Oliver: the longing, the joy, the frustration, the anger and, ultimately, the anguish of having to choose between his art and his working class community. The agony of indecision carves lines in his face as he weighs the offer of a rich patron (Phillippa Wilson) to take him out of the mines and up to her mansion studio.
Although familiar enough from "Billy Elliot," this dramatic conflict is treated with less sentimentality here, largely because the art discussions between the technically naive painters and their tutor are so intellectually engaging and such rollicking good fun. Who should make art? What makes art? What does art make of its maker? Who owns art? And how much should art cost, anyway?
The conversation that comes out when these guys sit down and try to figure it all out is an art in itself.
If you flipped over "Billy Elliot," then the Manhattan Theatre Club is clearly hoping you'll do a double backflip for "The Pitmen Painters," a new play by Lee Hall, who wrote the book for the hit musical about an English coal miner's son who becomes a ballet dancer.
This time around, Mr. Hall has given us a fictionalized version of the real-life story of the Ashington Group of Unprofessional Artists, a bunch of Depression-era miners who took a course in art appreciation and subsequently became famous painters (though only briefly so—they're forgotten today) while continuing to dig coal. The difference is that nobody in "The Pitmen Painters" wears toe shoes or lifts his voice in song to express the heartfelt hope that Margaret Thatcher will fry in hell. Otherwise, the two shows are strikingly similar, both being political tearjerkers that are deeply rooted in the labyrinthine peculiarities of the British class system. In fact, there's only one significant difference between them: "The Pitmen Painters" is good.
Not great, you understand, so don't be fooled by the near-hysterical quotes from London's critical corps that have been trotted out as sucker bait for Manhattan theatergoers. Stripped of the finger-wagging socialist sermonizing that spoils the last 10 minutes of the play, "The Pitmen Painters" is a "Full Monty"-type commercial comedy about five working-class blokes with inch-thick accents ("We just want to knaa aboot proper art") who turn out to be smarter, nobler and more talented than Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), the well-meaning but unconsciously patronizing university man who deigns to introduce them to the joys of painting. But if you don't mind going along with Mr. Hall and the accomplished ensemble cast that executes his well-worn tricks, you'll find "The Pitmen Painters" to be both entertaining and touching—as well as unexpectedly intelligent whenever the characters discuss the art form that has changed their lives.
It is this aspect of "The Pitmen Painters" that I found most interesting, especially in light of the recent success of "Red," John Logan's glibly pretentious play about Mark Rothko, which purported to give the audience a backstage glimpse of a genius at work. None of the members of the Ashington Group, by contrast, were much more than gifted amateurs (you can see some of their work by going to www.ashingtongroup.co.uk). Unlike Mr. Logan's Rothko, though, they talk like artists, especially Oliver Kilbourn (played by Christopher Connel), the most promising member of the group, and it is both poignant and thought provoking to eavesdrop on Oliver's first encounter with a piece of abstract art: "You can never have a 'perfect' circle because it has to be made of something. It has to be made. That's the point. I know they call it abstract art, but it's quite the opposite, isn't it? It's not abstract, it's there."
Mr. Hall has also had the wit to make his characters something more than we're-as-good-as-you-mate ideologues. Indeed, the most startling moment in the play comes when Harry (Michael Hodgson), a Marx-spouting dental mechanic, objects politely but firmly as Lyon condescendingly informs a crowd of enthralled middle-class admirers that "anyone can paint. You simply have to find the key and unlock all this creativity which we as a society have hitherto allowed to lie dormant." Harry isn't having any of it: "We shouldn't be asking, can anyone paint? We should be asking, can anyone become an artist?... We are individuals. There's 25,000 people in Ashington. We just happen to be the ones who can paint."
The Manhattan Theatre Club has wisely chosen to import the original production of "The Pitmen Painters," complete with all seven of the actors who created their roles in Newcastle in 2007. Mr. Connel may have the best part, but everyone else in the cast makes a comparably strong and personal impression, and Max Roberts's staging, despite intermittent flashes of agitproppish excess, shows them off to good effect. Gary McCann's décor, which mainly consists of life-size reproductions and projections of canvases by the actual members of the Ashington Group, is as simple and effective as Mr. Roberts's plain, blunt direction.
You may have guessed that I didn't expect to like "The Pitmen Painters," which by all rights should have been ludicrously heavy-handed. Sometimes it is, but more often Mr. Hall has rung fresh changes on his familiar formulas, and the result is a satisfying piece of entertainment that makes its points without leaving you too badly bruised about the head and shoulders.