October 6, 2010

"The Pitmen Painters" Is a Vivid Display of Art

My husband K declined when I invited him to see The Pitmen Painters, the latest British import that opened last week at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. He said the show sounded too much like Billy Elliot.  And, having seen that musical about the miner’s son who becomes a ballet dancer here and in London, K said he didn’t need to see the same story again.

I got what he was saying. The Pitmen Painters, a stage adaptation of a book about real-life coal miners who were celebrated as artists during the 1930s and ‘40s, isn’t a musical but it was written by Lee Hall, who also did the book for Billy Elliot.  And, once again, Hall takes on the theme of the transformative power of art. 

Hall, who grew up in Britain’s coal country, is, at heart, a cultural populist, set on making the case that art isn’t just an elitist thing but can be appreciated and created by working class people. As one line in the play says, “Art belongs to everyone.”

That message resonates with me.  As does The Pitmen Painters. 

The play divides the miners’ tale into two parts.  The first act sketches out how the men discovered the joy of expressing themselves on canvas after a professor they recruited to tutor them in a continuing-ed style class decided that the best way to teach them about art was to have them make it. The second act focuses on the challenges the miners faced once their work was taken up by the art cognoscenti.

The eight-member cast, brought over intact from a successful run at London’s National Theatre and beautifully directed by Max Roberts, is superb in both acts. But the first is more fun. It’s filled with good-natured humor as the miners make their first forays into the art world.  And there are soul-stirring moments as their understanding and love of art deepens. As an added bonus, copies of the paintings the real miners made are projected on the overhead screens that are a central part of Gary McCann’s understated but effective design. 

The second act gets more serious and, at times, pedantic as Hall repeatedly drives home another of his favorite themes: the breach between Britain’s upper and lower classes.  The succession of soapbox speeches exhausts some listeners. Many of the critics say the play would be a masterpiece if it had ended with the intermission curtain (click here to read some of those reviews). 

Yet I liked a lot of that second act.  Yes, the upbeat energy flags a little but Hall isn’t afraid to use some of that time up on the soapbox to spout off about some less-feel-good—but still important—stuff like the way the people who became the miners’ patrons also patronized them. Or the way the most gifted of the miners wrestled with the fear that his talent would isolate him in a no man’s land between the two classes.  

Maybe it’s because my story—a poor kid whose passport to the wider world was marked by books, art and, of course, theater—isn’t so far from the miners’ story.  But from the first to the last, The Pitmen Painters rang true to me.  I suppose it is what's often dismissed as middlebrow entertainment. But that is pretty much the location of my brow—and those of the intellectually curious and courageous men who inspired The Pitmen Painters. 

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