I think this might be a first for dovegreyreader scribbles but it most definitely won't be the last because I have enjoyed reading it so much, a play that is. I'm not sure, apart from the odd Shakesperean reference perhaps, that I've read and shared thoughts about a play on here before.
The first inkling I had of The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall came to me via those aficianados of the London (and occasionally suburban) stage, those discerners of the proscenium arch, Andrew and Phil The West End Whingers. I'm not sure if it's still in the running but The Pitmen Painters was topping their league table of favourites last I read.
"This is the most consistently enjoyable play the Whingers have seen in a long time, possibly the most engaging on stage in London at the moment. It’s the theatrical eqivalent of Monet’s Water Lilies, a real crowd-pleaser which deserves to draw in the punters.
Andrew’s now obsessed with lines such as “Art’s about you” (Andrew always believes things are about him anyway) and “everyone has a creative gift”.
In fact Andrew was so inspired he threatened to pick up his paint brushes again, and he hasn’t done that since his days painting along with Nancy. Expect to see Andrew sporting a rakishly angled beret behind an easel in the stalls near you very soon."
Now there are pros and cons to living in splendid rural isolation and one of the cons is the absence of Shaftesbury Avenue here in the Tamar Valley. Getting to a play, forgive me, is quite a performance and recent attempts ( egged on by The Whingers after that Observer photo-shoot, The Chalk Garden, Donmar Warehouse, complete sell-out, ninety minutes standing in returns queue, number seven in queue, six returned tickets) have not been marked with success so I've resigned myself to Drama From the Armchair.
This is new territory indeed, really 'being' the different characters as I read and in this case putting to good use all those happy hours spent watching Auf Wiedersehen Pet because The Pitmen Painters quickly demands good solid Geordie accents to cope with lines like,
Harry 'I wasn't ganna but I had to get out of the house, man. Wor lass is driving iz crackers.'
I was soon into character and playing all parts ye
knaa what ah mean leik.
This is 1934 and based on the true story of the Ashington Miners. Under the auspices of the Worker's Educational Association, the miners have organised a class in Art Appreciation for themselves, they'd wanted to do Introductory Economics but couldn't find a tutor. Robert Lyon is the hapless Southerner destined to make inroads with the working miners George, Oliver, and Jimmy, Harry, ex-miner gassed on the Somme and now a dental mechanic, and an unemployed Young Lad allowed in by special dispensation ( and apologies for the asterisks, I'm not being prudish, just denying the zillions of spam messages that those words will attract, we have barely recovered from the162 after that post I did on the book Hubbub, Fi*th and Ste*ch)
Enter a Young Lad
George What are you doing here?
Young Lad I've come for the class.
George Yer joking, aren't you - oot ye gan.
Young Lad What's wrong with me coming? I thought yer wer supposed to be encouraging people to learn things.
George Aye, Worker's Educational Association. Not Skiving Little A***holes' Association. This is a place of serious learning so bu**er off.
As the group settle down to learn it quickly becomes apparent that they have far more to offer than Mr Lyon can ever have imagined and, once the group begins to paint, a real naive and raw talent emerges and one with commercial potential. Exploitation and the temptations of wealth lurk just over the artistic horizon and as Lee Hall suggests in his introduction,
' It's both a joke and a tragedy as the working classes who are denuded of political power and spiritual succour are excluded also from the system of culture so ravenously enjoyed by their exploiters...Culture is for living, not commodification, and art should be about taking part.'
Lee Hall knows a thing or two about social inequalities having been responsible for that amazing radio play that took us by storm back in the 1990's, Spoonface Steinberg and more recently the screen play for Billy Elliot.
Reading a play versus seeing a play obviously necessitates the imaginative but essential conjuring up of a set via the stage directions, and thanks to Lee Hall's clear guidance that was all much easier than I thought it might be and definitely added to the reading experience. Looking at the pictures I'm pleasantly surprised to see how closely matched my thinking is with the actual stage production.
The play is very very funny and then rapidly serious by turns as Lee Hall's themes of art, privilege and access seep through, and locating it in the 1930's whilst removing it a step from present day of course still allows for pertinent parallels, making its central tenets still completely relevant.
Harry ...Cos we're not deing it for anybody else, we're deing it for worselves; and s*d it, it's more than that - we're doing it for all those lives in the dark, who never had the chance. For the thousands of little pit laddies without an education, the blokes with their backs bent and their hands busted open, folk who've barely got the energy to get home, never mind start deing art when they get there. We're deing it for all of those lives unrecorded. All of that creativity unfulfilled.'
The Pitmen Painters returns to The National Theatre in January 2009 and it is still possible to see the work of the original Ashington Group in a permanent exhibition at The Woodhorn Colliery Museum, just north of Newcastle, and if ah wez a canny lass I'd be gunna both.