The Pitmen Painters

  • Our critic's rating:
    October 1, 2010
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall

    Review by Tulis McCall
    (1 Oct 2010)

    Got a wee bit lost in this one, through no fault of the production – it was just those words, words, words, words, words. This is an extraordinary story that is gifted with a fine, fine cast, some snappy dialogue, and excellent direction and production values. There is, however, just too much of it. I felt like Josef II of Austria whose feedback to Mozart (in Amadeus) was “Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.”

    In 1934, when men in Northumberland England worked in mines earning $13 for a 10 hour day, a few of them decided to create a class in art appreciation. In the beginning, the five men (there were actually 30) are dumber than a box of rocks when it comes to art. They pride themselves on their self-discipline and intelligence, and take great offense at any remark that would suggest they are not as good as the next man, perhaps better. But as they tell their instructor Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) “We’ve never been anywhere. We are pitman.” They have never seen a painting, have no idea who Leonardo da Vinci was, and are suspicious when Lyon suggests a person could be an epitome and a painter at the same time.

    When the initial class turns into a war of words about the meaning of art – the pitmen want to know the secret of what’s going on, the meaning of art, and Lyon insists that the meaning lies with the emotional reaction of the observer – a standoff is created. An exasperated Lyon suggests that if they want to know about art, they should create it themselves. Prest-o change-0, and we’re off.

    The scenes that follow show these men to be what they are: scrappy and game. They take their homework seriously once they get the hang of it. The class critiques have a sort of “Whose on First” quality as they find their voices and defend their choices. They throw off Lyon’s guidance every chance they get and take each other on as if it were mud wrestling. Soon, however, the dialogue becomes platitudes as Mr. Hall, author of Billy Elliott, tries to guide us into believing the worthiness of these artists. He uses Lyon’s voice over and over again to remind us that art is a tool for resolution, and that at its core it is a spiritual matter.

    Problem is, this is a futile exercise, because the Pitmen Paintings stand on their own. You can actually hear the audience gasp at the quality of the work shown on three screens on stage. There is nothing down home or hokey about this art. These paintings are spot-on marvelous. Hall, however, insists on creating a story, and he is nothing if not tenacious. He introduces two women – one a life model and the other an art collector – singles out Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel) as the artist with promise who catches the eye of Helen Sutherland (Philippa Wilson) and sends the men off on a jaunt to London where the real art lives. The men experience an epiphany. They are enthralled and terrified.

    HARRY: Whatever your circumstances.
    YOUNG LAD: Rich or poor.
    JIMMY: You make them something else.
    HARRY: You can change things.
    OLIVER: And if you can overcome whatever you need to overcome.
    HARRY: No matter who you are, where you come from. That is what is important about art. JIMMY: You take one thing.
    GEORGE: And you make one thing into another.
    OLIVER: And you transform who you are.

    The play could have ended right there and we would have been fine. As it is, the story soldiers on. The group debates Oliver’s’ possible stipend which would let him leave the mines; they have their first art show; the ugly head of prejudice emerges as the men resist being pigeon-holed as lower class miracles. Everyone else moves on while the Painters stay in place. WWII flies by, the group disbands but stays connected to one another. We end with a toast to the future of peace and socialism, National Health and an Ashington University. Perhaps the moment that, combined with the slides of the real paintings, that is the most haunting is the final one, in which these very fine actors sing the Miners’ Hymn, a capella, and in four part harmony.

    Lord of the oceans and the sky above,
    Whose wondrous grace has blessed us from our birth,
    Look with compassion, and with love
    On all who toil beneath the earth.

    In that moment we really see the men who have been talking and talking and talking. Their final silence after the hymn is poignant and shattering. And a long time coming.

    (Tulis McCall)

    "Feels like the work of an intelligent and virtuously self-conscious teacher, determined to present all sides of an argument. "
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Warm and wonderfully acted play."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "Will warm your cockles, it's also smart and inspirational in a way that never panders to the audience."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "Is droll enough and holds our interest steadily."
    John Simon for Bloomberg

    "Absorbing, thought-provoking, and very funny. What's not to like?"
    Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

    "Ultimately more a political statement than a full-bodied play."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "This exceptional ensemble has managed to polish the play to near perfection... priceless piece of theatre"
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "If the story at times is predictable and the conclusion doesn't resonate, Hall's realistic, frequently humorous writing is agreeable although some passages about art and allegory get a bit thick."
    Michael Summers for Newsroom Jersey

    "Expertly acted by the ensemble and evocatively directed by Max Roberts."
    Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter

    "Intellectually engaging and such rollicking good fun. "
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

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