The Pitmen Painters isn't as passionate as its characters

Based on historical events, The Pitmen Painters tells the story of a group of miners in a small town near Northumberland who sign up for an art-appreciation class taught by art historian Robert Lyon. When the men show no interest in his slides, Lyon realizes that having them create their own work is a better way of awakening their interest. Though a couple are reluctant at first, soon everyone is bringing in sketches and paintings. Then two women enter the picture: Helen, a wealthy and sophisticated collector; and a model whose announcement that she's about to take off her clothes shocks and electrifies the miners. The group holds one exhibition and then another, travels to London to visit galleries, becomes increasingly knowledgeable, and eventually wins a measure of fame. The questions the Pitmen painters ponder are those that preoccupy all artists and art lovers: What is the meaning of art and its place in an individual life? How do we understand what we see? Does the meaning reside in the work or the viewer?

There's a strong political message here, and it's not just about the importance of art — though art is at its center. The play begins in 1934 and takes us through to 1984, and the pitmen receive their eye-opening classes courtesy of the government-supported Workers' Educational Association. Soon after World War II, the British government became increasingly socialistic, nationalizing large parts of the economy, including the coal mines, and creating a welfare state that hugely improved the lives of working people. By then, most people believed that art shouldn't be just for the elite; everyone had the ability to create and enjoy it. The arts were heavily subsidized, and no one suggested that art should pay for itself or be commodified. Then in the 1950s and '60s came the angry young men — writers like Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, who voiced the rage and frustrations of working men. (Women had to wait.) All of these trends affect the Pitmen painters, and as their understanding of art grows, so does their confidence, self-respect and sense of who they are and where they belong.

The early scenes as Lyon and the uneducated miners struggle to communicate are delightful, and so are the men's comments as they begin to paint. The play's problems begin around a third of the way through. All that talk about the meaning of art starts to feel like a lecture. The characters — so appealing at first — never deepen. Each has some personal tic, but they are never explored. George is an obsessed stickler for rules. Harry keeps saying he's a Marxist and fought in the 1916 Battle of the Somme, a battle in which tens of thousands died — but what he endured doesn't seem to influence his painting. No sooner does the date 1939 flash onto a video screen than you know Young Lad will enlist — and since he's a symbol without a name, you know that he will die in the war. Do the other men discuss his death or worry about his family, whom they surely know? They don't. Only Oliver has a storyline. He turns out to have the soul of a true artist and, offered the chance to give up mining and devote himself to art, he's desperately torn. He longs to paint full-time; he can't bring himself to betray his roots.

Otherwise, everyone discovers a similar love for painting at roughly the same time. They all start talking like art critics and tossing around words and phrases like "opulent," "Freudian," "parable," "a sense of awe," "variation within a tradition." Author Lee Hall, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie Billy Elliot and the book for the musical, wants to say something about class solidarity — "When we saw the Van Gogh, we became a group" — but as Oliver himself tells Helen, "From a distance, we all look like stereotypes, but look a little closer, and none of our stories are typical. There's always some twist." Still, the Miners Alley cast is almost solid enough to overcome the script's drawbacks. Mark Collins is a sensitively drawn Oliver, and there are particularly strong performances from Paul Borrillo as Harry and Tim Fishbaugh as George.

Early in the play, someone says that the point of a work of art is the way it makes you feel: If it doesn't evoke feeling, it's just flat. And that describes exactly what's wrong with The Pitmen Painters. The play keeps talking about passion, but it isn't passionate. It just keeps banging you on the head with art-school questions.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman