‘The Pitmen Painters’ at Duchess Theatre

This was the most enjoyable evening at the theatre I’ve had in ages.  Witty, clever, thought provoking and full of heart, performed by a tremendous ensemble cast, I was totally absorbed; the time passed unnoticed and I emerged from the theatre full of the energy and possibilities that art can bring, as well as saddened at the light the play throws on the current marginalisation of art education.

The play is based on the real life story of a group of miners at the Ashington Colliery who, in the 1930s, determined to educate themselves, hired a professor to teach them art appreciation.  In order to help them along this route, he encourages them to produce their own paintings, beginning with lino-cuts.  Through their work, depicting whippets, allotments, local street scenes and the working down the pit, images of which are projected above the stage, they enjoyed a brief period of celebration and attention in the art world.

This may all sound a bit worthy, but the play is the exact opposite of that.  It is filled with comic moments especially when the posh academic first arrives in the midst of the fabulously disputatious group of miners and they barely understand each other.  The bickering and joshing amongst the group is deeply comic, be it the constant reference to the rule book by the union convener, or the Marxist grandstanding of the ‘dental engineer’; at the same time the passion to learn and the unsettling of preconceived notions is deeply moving.

Possibly most affecting is the story of Oliver Kilbourn, the most talented of the group.  He is justifiably riled at the suggestion that they are a sort of job lot of pitmen painters proving that anyone can be creative, but when he is offered a stipend by a wealthy heiress patron he agonises over his decision, and ultimately finds it impossible to leave the pit community that had sustained him through family tribulations

Although there is a feeling of sadness at the end, that so many of their hopes of the better things to come after nationalisation were so bitterly betrayed, I left the theatre brimming with the arguments which had been played out, convinced of the value of talking about these issues.  It was more than just a debate between the values of high art and populist pap; the fear of leaving the comfort of what you know, the questions of selling out, or the exploitation of others by patronising them, indeed the difference between patronage and patronisation; the conflict between the security of the collective over the risks of individual ambition.

Some distance from the theatre on my way back to Holborn tube station, I heard a woman behind me asking her companion ‘So what do you think, did Oliver do the right thing in refusing the patronage?’  I cheered silently.

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