The Pitmen Painters -- Theater Review

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A companion piece of sorts to his "Billy Elliot," Lee Hall's "The Pitman Painters" is another portrait of artistic flowering amid the oppressive conditions faced by British coal miners.

Based on a book by William Feaver, this true tale about the Ashington Group -- miners from the north of England who during the 1930s famously became celebrated painters -- this moving comedy-drama has much of importance to say about the nature of art and its inescapable intersections with class and politics. Imported with its cast fully intact from its hit engagement at London's National Theatre, the play should find equal success on Broadway, with inevitable awards contention to follow.

The sort of tale that would seem utterly absurd were it not true, the play details what happens when a group of poor, uneducated miners take advantage of a government-sponsored education grant to take a course in art appreciation (they wanted to study economics, but it wasn't available). Their tutor (Ian Kelly) quickly realizes that his method of instructing them via slides of Titian and DaVinci is not going to work.

Instead, he encourages them to create original artworks reflective of their lives and quickly discovers that several members of the group have a raw, innate talent. Their work soon comes to the attention of a wealthy heiress (Phillippa Wilson) who becomes their patron, leading to meetings with famous artists like Ben Nicholson (Brian Lonsdale) and eventually to exhibitions of their work.

The playwright renders his characters -- who also include a fervent Marxist and a young miner who becomes empowered by his discovery of his artistic skills -- in broad, vivid strokes that never succumb to caricature. And he infuses the proceedings with several highly amusing episodes, such as the men's flustered encounter with a nude female model blase about disrobing and their baffled reaction to an abstract, all-white painting.

Expertly acted by the ensemble and evocatively directed by Max Roberts, the production also gains tremendous impact from its showcasing of recreations of the miners' actual artworks, which are indeed fine enough to hang in the most prestigious galleries and museums.

Venue: Samuel J. Friedman, New York (Through Dec. 12)
Presented by: Manhattan Theatre Club by special arrangement with Bob Boyett
Production: Live Theatre, Newcastle/National Theatre of Great Britain
Cast: Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly, Brian Lonsdale, Lisa McGrillis, Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker, Phillippa Wilson
Playwright: Lee Hall
Director: Max Roberts
Scenic/costume designer: Gary McCann
Lighting designer: Douglas Kuhrt
Sound designer: Martin Hodgson
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