Had “The Pitman Painters” written by Lee Hall ended at the conclusion of Act I where the group of miners who have been taking art appreciation classes to expand their horizons and have themselves dabbled in creating pictures realize what art is and how it has changed their lives and outlook on life I could heartily recommend the production that has just opened at the MTC Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Unfortunately there is a second act that changes gears so drastically that it almost is another play. Where Act I is intriguing, informative and inspirational – Act II goes down the tedious socialist political path and alienates us from all the good will that has been fostered in the previous act.
Spanning from 1934 to 1947, this true story of British miners known as The Ashington Group, who unexpectedly become well know artists, is truly fascinating. Director Max Roberts makes great use of three screens to project their enlarged works on the otherwise drab but realistic set by Gary McCann.
The uniformly excellent cast has been imported from London. They lend great authenticity and humor to the play. Miners, that dress in suits and ties to attend the lessons imparted by instructor Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) who almost immediately decides that rather than showing them slides about art that it would be far better to have attempt to paint from their own perspective on subjects chosen by him every week. What emerges are some wonderful naive works of art with comments that are comical as well as logical to those men from the mines.
Hesitant at first and not knowing the first thing about art or artists the miners who have come out of curiosity or to get away from their wives or merely to keep warm slowly begin to enjoy these meetings especially when their tutor brings in a live female model (Lisa McGrillis) to pose naked for them.
When a wealthy art patron, Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson) becomes interested in the most gifted of the men, Oliver (Christopher Connel) he has to decide whether to stay with the group or go out on his own – receiving a stipend from her. This is where the story starts its downhill trajectory and where their instructor uses the group to further his own career.
The characters which include Union leader George Brown (Deka Walmsley), dental technician Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), Jimmy Floyd (a very amusing David Whitaker) and a shy hanger-on Young Lad (Brian Lonsdale) are brought to vivid life.
The permanent collection of their art resides at the Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Newcastle. “The Pitman Painters” was inspired by a book by William Feaver.
www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com Photo: Joan Marcus