The Pitmen Painters is a true story following a group of men from the mining community as they rediscover and reflect on their world through art. Written by Lee Hall, best known for Billy Elliot, the play follows The Ashington Group from their first art appreciation class in the old army hut to exhibiting in national galleries and gaining critical acclaim.
The story unfolds in a small mining town in Northumbria called Ashington. It’s 1934 and a group of miners decide to hire a professor, Robert Lyon (Cliff Burnett) to teach an art appreciation evening class. Headed up by no-nonsense union man George (Jim Barclay) the group of men soon abandon the theory of art in favour of practice. Amusing and moving, under Kevin Shaw’s light directorial hand, The Pitmen Painters shines a light on a group of ordinary men who achieve unprecedented things.
Joe Strathers-Tracey’s framed projections of the original Ashington Group artwork hang at the back of the stage – depicting images inspired by a 1930’s coalfield community. It’s a thought-provoking reminder of the cultural and economic barriers that can stand in the way of achieving individual potential and expression.
The cast are brilliant and there is a real sense of camaraderie throughout with some superb individual performances. Jim Barclay gets plenty of laughs from the Northern crowd as the sharp-toned leader of the group and, in contrast, Simeon Truby plays the most promising artist of the group Oliver with sensitivity and focus. Helen Kay impresses as the bohemian art-lover Helen Sutherland and Maeve O’Sullivan adds a jot of cheekiness to the stage as the art student come life model, Susan. Cliff Burnett leads as the eccentric but humble art professor Robert Lyon, with Luke Morris, James Quinn and Micky Cochrane completing an assured line-up.
The Pitmen Painters is perfect programming for the Oldham Coliseum and is certainly worth catching. Perhaps what makes this story so brilliantly charming is that it is a true story about a group of working-class men. The real warmth in The Pitmen Painters lies in the Ashington Group’s true friendship as they embark on a discovery of themselves and each other through art.