The Pitmen Painters
"The Pitmen Painters" is a rather bland title for a fascinating play by Lee Hall (inspired by a book by William Feaver) now showing at ACT Theater. Pitmen refers to a group of British miners in the 1930s, who decide that after a grueling 10-hour workday there’s nothing they’d rather do than improve themselves with an art appreciation course.
According to the show notes by director Kurt Beattie, classes for workers were organized by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), created in 1903 by the union with the motto, "An enquiring mind is sufficient qualification." Bonded by the harsh working conditions, deep poverty and socialist leanings, miners formed their own solid communities.
This particular art appreciation class, taught by Robert Lyon (played by Frank Lawler) to a group of miners in Ashington, quickly becomes an art class when Lyon realizes his pupils have never seen a piece of art at all. In order to help them understand the point of art, he asks them to create their own, with remarkable results.
The art itself is one of the stars of the show, projected onto large screens as the students labor over its creation and argue over its meaning and worth. The audience receives an art appreciation class of sorts during the course of the evening.
Performed in the round, with a bare stage and just a few folding chairs and a table as a set, the play opens on the evening of the first art appreciation class. The broad working class accents and the untutored naiveté of the miners regarding the world outside their realm invite us to laugh at the ridiculous idea of uneducated working class men studying art appreciation.
As he runs up against the wall of his students’ ignorance, Lyon asks in frustration, "Why have you chosen to study art appreciation?" And he gets back the obvious answer, "To appreciate art!"
We realize that we were too quick to laugh. The miners lack experience with the wider world around them, but their inner landscapes range far and wide. Once they begin to create their own art, they engage in fierce discussions, ranging from whether the meaning of art rests in the creator, the art itself or the viewer, to issues of class, culture and elitism, to the question of whether a person is the product of environment or has some intrinsic talent or quality of his or her own.
Quite frankly, watching this group of men struggling to expand their horizons beyond their dirty, dangerous work is inspiring and humbling. Oliver Kilbourn (Jason Marr) stays up all night working on one piece, finding himself surprised by dawn.
Jimmy Floyd (Joseph P. McCarthy) misses a train to see an art exhibit and hitchhikes to catch up with the group. The performance itself becomes difficult to review because it rests in the shadow of the larger story drawn from life.
As one character says, "From a distance we all look like stereotypes," and we continue to confront our own over and over again throughout the show. At the end of Act I, the students realize that art is a way to take one thing and change it into something else, a way to make a mark on the world and be powerful.
But that’s a simple answer for a complicated world and the miners are caught up in their own reality. Oliver, who shows great promise as an artist, is offered the chance of a lifetime to leave his job and be paid to do art. In the end, he can’t step out of his own view of himself; being a miner is too much of what he is and what defines his community.
Robert Lyon, the instructor, rides the fame of the Pitmen Painters into a better job for himself. And Helen Sutherland (Morgan Rowe), the benefactress of the painters, flits off easily to her next fascination without much regard for the miners she leaves behind.
Scenic designer Carey Wong uses the projection screens and lack of set to good effect, including one lovely scene at a train station complete with rolling fog.
No performance stands out in particular, but the cast carries the show well. If I had one complaint it would be that the pace lagged a bit, particularly in Act II, and it’s already a lengthy play. But I enjoyed this glimpse into a tiny piece of history and I recommend both the play and a look through the body of work created by the original Pitmen Painters.