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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Pitmen Painters, Duchess Theatre

When I walked into the Duchess Theatre to see The Pitmen Painters, I had no idea what the play was about. I assumed from the title that art and painting would have a major role but aside from that I didn't know what to expect. On press night the theatre was full and had a real buzz, obviously everyone else was intrigued too.

The Pitmen Painters is set between 1932 and 1947 and documents the lives of a group of working class pitmen who turn to art to learn and escape the harsh reality of their jobs in the mines. With the encouragement of their teacher, they create work that is both sensitive and beautiful; it is a revelation to themselves and the world. Through their own experiences and creations they learn what art ‘means’. I found the story very powerful and moving, a real narrative that translates wonderfully to the stage.

We were in row B, very close to the stage, so close my neck ached by the interval, and the fountains of spit from the energetic and angry actors were not far from our faces! Though the real Pitmen Painters consisted of over thirty members, writer Lee Hall focuses on five men to depict, characters that are all based on their historical namesakes.

After hearing so many dodgy accents recently, I was delighted by the cast of Pitmen Painters who all seem totally at ease with the Geordie accent, it is believable throughout. The acting is superb, each and every man seems totally involved in the play and manages to balance the feelings of enthusiasm and confusion towards the new found interest. Trevor Fox is astounding as the most talented artist, Oliver Kilbourn, his nuanced performance is very affecting and made me feel both joy and sorrow with him. Joe Caffrey expends endless energy as the sniffling grumpy WEA union official, though convincing and hilarious he shouts perhaps a little too much. Ian Kelly strikes a contrast with the pitmen as the posh uptight art teacher who is initially perplexed by the men but gradually becomes devoted to them and their work.

I felt genuinely sad at the end of the play when, despite all their efforts and exhibitions these ‘Ashington Painters’ remain unknown and their artwork seemingly forgotten, hopefully this play will help to revive interest in these talented heroes.

The Pitmen Painters continues at the Duchess Theatre until 21 January, 2012. Buy tickets here.

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