THE RON Barber Studio at The Crescent has seen some outstanding productions gracing its flexible performing space from the resident company this season – to which Alan K Marshall’s ‘Pitmen Painters’ is a worthy and welcome addition.
Written by ‘Billy Elliot’ playwright Lee Hall, Marshall succinctly describes it in his programme notes as ‘a play about the past that asks vital questions about the state of art and community today’.
The ‘pitmen’ in the title were barely-educated working class men from Ashington in Northumberland who in 1934 organised a workers’ art appreciation class.
They hire tutor Robert Lyon to talk to them about art a bit like they would a club entertainer but, when this falls flat, Lyon deftly abandons lecturing and turns the sessions into practical art classes.
As it turns out, hands that were skilled in chipping rock from the cold coalfaces deep underground are also skilled at applying a paintbrush to canvas. Their work captured their harsh lives and the austerity and conformity of the community in which they lived.
Social and political comment was not only voiced as they painted, but fiercely debated and incorporated into nigh every brushstroke.
The remarkable pictures they produced received critical acclaim and after a time, became prized by collectors. Fame however did not go to pitmen heads as their education and talent blossomed.
Stubbornly you might say, pitmen remained loyal and true to their community and each other.
Robert Laird offers up a notable outing as Lyon the tutor. His journey with the pitmen enriches his own life even more than his influence deepens theirs. His squirming at his own guilt when he is awarded a professorship at Edinburgh School of Art on the back of his Pitmen Painter dissertation was a moment of brilliance.
Brian Wilson as the group organiser George Brown delivers his lines with a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm that is hypnotic – profound at times and comedic at others.
Mike Baughan made a lovable Marxist hell raiser as Harry Wilson and Damien Dickens provided the visual laughs as chunky Jimmy Floyd with a walking buffet secreted in his clothes.
Luke Plimmer brooded and bubbled as the frustrated ‘Young Lad’ who tries hard to fit in but always ends up as ‘Billy no mates’.
The art-loving patron and wealthy socialite Helen Sutherland was a joyous jaunt from the talented Karen Leadbetter and Susan Parks made for a delightfully cheeky nude model as Jessica Shannon.
A cameo appearance by Luke Plimmer as Ms Sutherland’s artist in residence artist Ben Nicholson was a welcome vignette amongst the politics. Oh how I loved the smell of that cigarette smoke, even if it was herbal – took me back to the bad old days when it was almost compulsory to have an overflowing ashtray in the rehearsal room.
Graeme Braidwood’s portrayal of Oliver Kilbourn, the most talented of all the painters, was quite simply a tour-de-force.
There were times when you could almost hear Kilbourn’s brain ticking as he weighed things over in his mind.
Braidwood was tight as a drum in his delivery of a half wannabe victim and half misfit. For his Kilbourn, the glass will always be half empty. Even when offered a life-changing stipend by Ms Sutherland and possibly a romp in her four-poster to boot he declines – preferring to find his solace in socialism than soft sheets and self-indulgence.
In his role as director, Marshall has painted his own canvas with broad strokes via a simple setting of wooden chairs. These are unceremoniously banged down to signpost where we are in the journey.
This is contrasted with the delicacy of a single stranded touch in the intimate moments, where a silent meeting of eyes is often all that is needed.
Marshall’s sense of pace and rhythm make sure actors and not preachers deliver the text. There is no over-egging and we quite rightly get momentary beats, instead of pregnant pauses.
The use of projection screens works beautifully – enhancing not intruding and finally imparting the news that the Ashington pit closed in 1981 bringing with it the devastation of the community.
The final scene with our Pitmen singing ‘Gresford’ the miners hymn, complete with a brass band blasting out behind them. made the hairs rise on the back of the neck.
This powerful piece is theatre at it’s finest – a triumph that should not be missed.
Pitmen Painters runs at The Crescent until Saturday, May 21. Click here for times, tickets and more information.
Review By Euan Rose
Euan Rose Reviews