Playwright Lee Hall earned international attention with his Oscar-nominated screenplay to “Billy Elliot” and later his book and lyrics for the hit musical adaptation of the story, about a boy from a northern English mining community whose passion for dance outstrips social expectations. Returning to the place where that work took shape when he was writer-in-residence, Hall reopens Newcastle’s Live Theater after a £5.5 million ($11.2 million) refit with “The Pitmen Painters,” the true story of a group of 1930s northern English miners who again defy social expectations — this time by developing a gift for art.
If Hall’s first major original stage work in seven years lacks the heady romanticism of “Billy Elliot,” it’s never less than funny, polemical and compelling in its debate about class, exploitation and the nature of art.
The pattern of a working-class artist triumphing in the face of exclusive establishment culture is familiar from “Billy Elliot” but, just as significantly, “The Pitmen Painters” recalls Yasmina Reza’s “Art.” Where that play panders to bourgeois philistinism, comforting an audience unwilling to take seriously the peculiarities of modern art, Hall’s bittersweet comedy offers a challenge to those same prejudices.
In Reza’s play, a white canvas with white diagonals is a symbol of art-world insanity, but when Hall’s characters first see a similarly elemental work by Ben Nicholson (Brian Lonsdale), their initial bewilderment is replaced by genuine engagement and a debate about the tension between the concrete and the abstract.
“Art is making something possible,” says one of them, a sentiment surely close to Hall’s heart as he tries to do justice to the true story of a group of men who left school before age 12 and had never visited a gallery but took advantage of a pre-war workers’ education class to teach themselves to paint. Unschooled in technique, they produced work alive with observational detail and naive beauty. They were championed by shipping-line heiress Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson) and given exhibitions in Newcastle, although they never left the mines in their native Ashington.
Against the men’s raw talent, Hall places the figure of Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), the art appreciation tutor who figured they’d be better off producing their own lino cuts than studying the Sistine Chapel. Played by Kelly with a keenly observed mixture of prejudice and passion, Lyon has all the advantages of education but no real artistic gift. Like Wilson’s regal Sutherland, he is as guilty of exploiting the men for his own gain as he is commendable for recognizing their abilities.
In one of the most touching scenes, the gifted painter Oliver Kilbourn (a beautifully understated performance by Christopher Connel) turns down Sutherland’s offer of a stipend, preferring to stay true to his social roots. Lyon, meanwhile, earns a post at Edinburgh U. purely through his association with the miners and the advantages of his upbringing.
It’s not that Hall is sour about the miners’ lot. He has fun with the unexpectedness of them discussing fine art in esoteric language, but even his most deflating jokes never undermine the argument that “real art belongs to everyone.” Max Roberts’ production is delivered with perfect deadpan dryness and celebrates that pre-war era when working people embraced education as a noble end in itself.
But although Hall’s script is both stimulating and funny, real life gets the better of him in the end. The thrust of the narrative points us toward tragedy or triumph but, in truth, the group pottered on until 1971 with no great emotional finale. Hall covers up with a chorus of a miners’ hymn to bring this humane and entertaining play to an end. It’s a stirring moment, but not enough to send us dancing into the streets.