Theatre Review: The Pitmen Painters, Edinburgh

The Pitmen Painters.
The Pitmen Painters.
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FIRST performed in 2007, under a Labour government, it is no doubt a grave disappointment to Lee Hall that his most recent play has acquired greater relevance in the intervening years.

King’s Theatre, Leven Street * * *

An impassioned celebration of untapped potential within the working classes, The Pitmen Painters finds Hall covering much the same ground as in his earlier Billy Elliot. The difference this time is that his gripes against the changing face of the ‘people’s party’ are now overshadowed by Tory privatisation and cuts.

Based on the real life Ashington Group of painters, the play begins as a sharp fish-out-of-water comedy. A stuffy professor has been recruited by the Workers’ Education Authority to give a series of classes on art appreciation before an audience made up of colliery miners, none of whom have ever encountered a painting in person. The class’ aggressive attempts to gain an understanding of the subject are at odds with the teacher’s benign liberalism and Hall once again demonstrates his deft touch for characterisation.

Each of the six men is clearly defined from the beginning, to the extent that laughs come from anticipating their reactions to one another.

Unfortunately, as the group are encouraged to produce paintings of their own, the play’s tone succumbs to inconsistency. The characters begin to act as mouthpieces for separate strands of art theory and deliver profound monologues that don’t quite gel with the subtle naturalism displayed elsewhere.

Admirable in its willingness to analyse genuine art from the era, the Pitmen Painters is of most interest for its well observed character studies and bittersweet depiction of 1930s British life. With the threat of fascism and the outbreak of the Second World War providing a backdrop to the plot, the audience can’t help but admire the miners’ inherent decency and commitment to socialist values.

Yet even as the men are embraced by the art establishment, one gets the impression that they are being no less exploited than in their grim day jobs. The optimistic note on which the play ends is ultimately dampened by the knowledge that the bright future the newly enlightened underdogs saw for themselves would never come to pass.

n Run ends Saturday