Published on October 9th, 2009 | by Darren Byrne4
What is art? – The Pitmen Painters in The Gaiety Theatre
It’s times like these I realise what an amateur I actually am, when I find it hard to sum up the right words and phrases to say how great something is. Before I go on with this review, let me first say, trust me, The Pitmen Painters is a play everyone should see. It runs tomorrow afternoon at 2.30 and tomorrow night at 7.30 in The Gaiety Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival and I believe there are limited tickets still available. I can’t recommend it enough.
Written by Lee Hall (who wrote Billy Elliot) and based on a non-fiction novel by William Feaver, The Pitmen Painters tells the story of a working men’s group in 1930’s Britain who try to break the monotony of the mines through extracurricular classes. The Ashington Group employ the art appreciation lecturer, Robert Lyon, to teach them about art, admitting that they have never even been to a gallery before. He tries to teach them that art is about emotion and how it makes you feel but they just want to know what the paintings mean. In order to teach them art appreciation Mr. Lyon decides the group needs to paint for themselves. The resulting work is breathtaking and the group soon become renowned for their work.
That’s the on-paper gist of the story, but there’s so much more to it than that. Hall’s stageplay is both hilarious and moving, but it also acts as a tool for Hall to question what art is, to ask whether it means anything at all, to discuss whether it truly is for the masses or just for the elite. He takes six of the original Pitmen group (which exceeded 30 men) and focuses on them to tell his tale. The smaller number allow him to focus on character and expand the ideas. Though some of the character were somewhat two dimensional – the clichéd stuffy group leader, the naive idealistic youth – Hall more than makes up for these downfalls by creating a fantastic dynamic between Mr. Lyon and the most promising painter Oliver Kilbourn. It’s wonderful to watch unfold.
In fact, the play is more about Oliver’s journey than anyone else’s – as he goes from beleaguered pitman to open minded painter to socialist groupie. Through his eyes we watch the pain and inner turmoil of the artist. It’s hit choices that provide the dramatic conflict within the play. [SPOILER IN THIS PARAGRAPH] This is only occasionally to the detriment of other important plotlines – such as the death of one of the main characters, which is only idly mentioned in passing.
The ideas put forward, the comedy throughout and the lasting impression left makes this play of of the best I’ve seen in recent years.
At the end of Wednesday night’s performance, we were given a nice treat in the form of a Q&A session with the playwright Lee Hall, chaired by our own Roddy Doyle. Roddy was clearly a fan of the play and asked some interesting questions of Hall, giving us further insight to the play. The surprisingly young Hall was charming, funny and candid and was more than happy to answer a few questions from the audience with the same candour afforded to Roddy Doyle. It was such a pleasant end to an already brilliant evening.