Review: The Pitmen Painters

2010 has turned out to be painting’s year on Broadway. In the spring we had the Tony Award winning Red, which looked into the brilliant, arrogant mind of American master Mark Rothko. Now we have The Pitmen Painters, which looks at a much less famous group of artists from the mining town of Ashington in Northern England. It was written by Lee Hall, author of Billy Elliot in all of its incarnations, and to my taste, it’s a more engaging and provocative evening of theatre than Elliot is.

The Pitman Painters follows a group of miners who take an art course that alters the course of their lives. When their instructor suggest they make art as a way to understand it, he unwittingly unleashes surprising fonts of imagination and sheer artistic talent. The painters themselves represent the full range of English labor: there’s abrasive Marxist Harry Wilson, bean-counting Union man George Brown, brooding diamond in the rough Oliver Kilbourn and naïve yet visionary Jimmy Floyd — as well as an unnamed “Young Lad”.

Much of the more compelling drama comes from the tension between their individual artistic visions and their deeply felt sense of community. Do you strike out on your own and become a “proper artist” or do you commit to helping out the men in the group that supports you? In the end, neither end of this debate wins out, which allows Hall to explore the issue with greater depth.

The terrific cast brings each of these men to vivid life, and director Max Roberts energetically captures the immediacy of these men’s excitement about art’s possibilities. The second act is weaker than the first, but I think that’s a natural consequence of dramatizing a true story; life very rarely works out as neatly as fiction does. The Pitmen Painters is easily the most stimulating and thought-provoking night in the theatre I’ve spent since—well, Red!

For tickets, click here.

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