The Pitmen Painters
Sat 21st March to Sat 28th March
Nobody told us to paint, nobody paid us! This is us - our lives!
In 1934, a group of Ashington miners and a dental mechanic hired a professor from Newcastle University to teach an Art Appreciation evening class. Unable to understand each other, they embarked on one of the most unusual experiments in British art as the pitmen learned to become painters. Within a few years the most avant-garde artists became their friends, their work was taken for prestigious collections and they were celebrated throughout the British art world; but every day they worked, as before, down the mine.
The Pitmen Painters premiered at Live Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, before transferring to the National Theatre in 2008. The rights have only just been released for Amateurs.
The Pitmen Painters
The question at the heart of Lee Hall's play comes in the second half of The Pitmen Painters. It's posed by Robert Lyon, the art lecturer who first travelled from the South (Newcastle-on-Tyne) to Ashington in Northumberland to hand down some of his knowledge to a group of miners on behalf of the Workers' Education Association in 1934. "Art belongs to everyone," he proclaims. "So why do we assume that it is the property of the privileged?"
Strictly speaking, of course, great works of art are the property of the privileged because they are the only ones who can shell out umpteen millions for a Van Gogh or a Hockney when they come up for auction at Christie's. And great artists have relied on wealthy patrons since before the Renaissance - the period that Lyon wants to tell the miners about until he quickly changes tack, having realised that he's facing a cultural chasm wider than the Tyne. Put simply, his would-be pupils haven't a clue what he's on about.
Firstly, there's the accent. Most Ashington miners made the average resident of Newcastle sound like a BBC newsreader, and Lyon is from the Deep South: a graduate of the Royal College of Art. He's posh, travels first class on the train, if you please. Then there's the lack of education that the WEA is trying to address. For the most part, these are men who first went down the pit at the age of 10. There is, needless to say, great comic potential in the culture clash. Hall's script is particularly sparky in the first half and, under Pete Bagley's assiduously researched direction, the Criterion's cast makes the most of it. The accent of the North-east is not the easiest for non-Geordies to master, but they do it with aplomb.
Bill Butler makes a triumphant return to the stage as a splendidly officious interpreter of WEA rules. Jon Elves huffs and puffs as the Marxist dental mechanic who doesn't work down the pit because he was, somewhat inconveniently, gassed at the Somme. And Alan Fenn looks as well as sounds as though he was born to play the part of Oliver Kilbourn, the most talented of the pitmen painters who faces something of a dilemma. The local lady of the manor, Helen Sutherland, played by Anne-marie Greene with the right combination of empathy and exasperation, offers him two pounds and ten shillings a week (seven bob more than he's earning down the pit) to become a full-time artist. After much soul-searching, he turns it down. "I don't wish to be patronising," she says at one point. But she does, of course. She wants to be his patron. What was that about art being the property of the privileged?
Those who create art, however, can come from any background, given the opportunities. There were far too few of those in the first half of the 20th century. But here is a heartening play about men who made the most of those opportunities - for the time being at least. There is a point when the coalface in Judy Talbot's cleverly designed set almost seems to be tinged with gold. Hall's script seems strangely relevant in the early years of the 21st century as television channels and magazine racks insult our intelligence while libraries and adult education courses are facing cuts that threaten their very existence. Oh yes, and the property of the privileged continues to soar in market value.
* The Pitmen Painters is at the Criterion until Saturday March 28.