Art show not to be missed

The Pitmen Painters

Malvern Festival Theatre

*****

THE Pitmen Painters is an extraordinary piece of theatre.

It will twist at your emotions, making you laugh, sigh and yet also feel saddened within just a few hours. But most importantly, it will make you think.

That's because this thought-provoking play, based on a true story, is multi-dimensional with more perspectives than a Picasso painting.

On the surface, there is the camaraderie among a small motley group of gritty miners and their friends based around Ashington Mine, in Northumberland, who come together at the Workers' Educational Association for an art appreciation class.

But as the story unfolds, the audience not only sees the group develop under the stewardship of posh academic Robert Lyon (Louis Hilyer), but is also treated to in-depth discussions on art using cleverly arranged projector screens, including the real-life paintings created by the miners portrayed in this play.

It's extremely funny yet tender as we see friendships, minds and opportunities grow within the group (an almost Dad's Army portfolio of characters) during 1930s Britain, through the Second World War and beyond.

But the elephant in the room at all times is the class divide.

Finding art in the grime, dark and toil of the coalface

There is always an undercurrent of politics, particularly with the glib comments from socialist dental engineer Harry Wilson (Joe Caffrey). While his remarks add to the banter between the men, he also makes some stark points about the living and working conditions in pre-war Britain. The brief glimpses we are given into what the miners endured every day down the pits stand out even more.

Then there's the constant question of whether art is confined to the more fortunate or if it is as accessible to these working class heroes - especially the most talented of the group, Oliver Kilbourn (Philip Correia), who is propositioned by a socialite to give up his mining life to become an artist.

This award-winning complex play, created thanks to a joint venture between Live Theatre Newcastle and the National Theatre, benefits hugely from the wonderful rapport between the actors on stage, who are all exceptional, as is the skilful direction by Max Roberts.

The first half swiftly moves along with wit, frivolity and paintings, the highlight of which is a hilarious scene when a model comes to pose nude for them.

And although the second half stalls a little at first under a far more serious tone and a little too much preaching in places, it thankfully picks up again to conclude on a high note - the cast coming together to sing the Miners' Hymn for a deeply poignant finale.

The Pitmen Painters has already attracted huge success on Broadway and the West End, so theatre-goers should see this tour as a stroke of luck as this play is simply unmissable.

To 30-03-13

Alison Brinkworth

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