It’s no secret I’m a huge admirer of director Randy Read. When Read produces a show, he delivers one of the finest nights of performance that this city sees. Even with this high praise, Read has created something extraordinarily special with New Stages production of Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters.
Running from April 8th to 15th at Peterborough’s Market Hall, The Pitmen Painters is a smart and sensitive production featuring an ensemble of some of Peterborough’s most celebrated performers. It’s a remarkable show — theatre in Peterborough almost never gets better than this.
The Pitmen Painters is a largely fictional story based on a real-life group of painters known as The Ashington Group that originated out of northern England.
Primarily made up of uneducated miners, The Ashington Group made a splash in the British art world in the 1930s and 1940s when their work gained attention among art collectors and intellectuals alike.
When playwright Lee Hall (best known as the writer of Billy Elliot) discovered their story through an article in the British newspaper The Guardian, he purchased a book about the group titled Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934 to 1984 by William Feaver (“pitman” is a word from northern England for a coal miner).
This book became the basis for his play, which first opened in Newcastle on Thyne in 2007 before being transferred to the Royal National Theatre. The Pitmen Painters then made its way to Broadway in 2010 featuring the original British cast and gained high praise from American critics, which helped expose the history and the art of The Ashington Group to North America.
A mixing of fact and fiction, The Pitmen Painters opens with the introduction of five working class men from Ashington in Northumberland, England: George Brown (Robert Winslow), Oliver Kilbourn (Tim Walker), Jimmy Floyd (Robert Ainsworth), Harry Wilson (Brad Breckenridge), and George’s nephew (Edward Charette) who they only refer to as the “young lad”.
The five men sign up for a course on art appreciation through the Workers’ Education Association. With the exception of Harry (who’s a dentist) and George’s nephew (who is unemployed), the men are employed as miners and have no knowledge of art whatsoever when their instructor, Robert Lyon (Mark Wallace), arrives to conduct the class.
The men quickly grow disinterested in the course that Lyon has prepared for them, so he suggests that they do some paintings themselves to understand what art is. As the men create art based upon their own lives and realities, their passion and understanding of art begins to grow and incredible things happen. Eventually, the group gains the attentions of art circles across England but, as the fortunes of one of the group begins to take an upswing, he is forced to make a decision to leave his life behind to pursue a career as a full-time artist.
With a relatively large ensemble cast compared to the last few productions from New Stages, the magic of The Pitmen Painters lies in the strength of the casting. The Pitmen Painters is to Peterborough theatre like The Expendables is to action films: Read has assembled a group of some of Peterborough’s most acclaimed and best-known actors.
Robert Winslow is the tough-talking and often explosive leader of the group, Tim Walker plays the sensitive prodigy, Robert Ainsworth is the daft comic relief who wants to paint dogs and horses, Brad Brackenridge is brooding and political, and Edward Charette is the somewhat lost young lad who “just comes in because it’s warm.”
Each of these actors has the ability to dominate the stage on his own, but when put together they form a tight ensemble who support one another while creating characters that are funny, thoughtful, and endearing. It’s master ensemble of greats from our local theatre community, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see all of these men working together on one stage.
Mark Wallace creates an interesting juxtaposition between his character, art instructor Robert Lyon, and the other characters. He plays the intellectual outsider who has penetrated the working-class world of these men. Lyon’s relationship with the men is consistently in flux and, while his objectives may often be questioned, in the end he maintains a certain amount of compassion for and loyalty to his pupils.
Although Lyons and the Pitmen Painters don’t seem to speak the same language when they first meet, gradually the gap between Lyons and his students narrows. While always divided by class and opportunity, eventually they become equals in their understanding of art.
Dianne Latchford also appears as part of this all-star cast in the important role of art collector Helen Sutherland. While the first part of the first act is dominated by male characters and attitudes, Dianne’s character gives the production a much-needed female presence, serving as the symbol of everything the Pitmen Painters are not.
An educated and wealthy woman from the city, Helen Sutherland is from high society but becomes fascinated with the men’s work. By bringing a sense of humanity to the character of Helen, Dianne avoids making the character of Helen a one-dimensional cliche.
Rounding out the performances is a brilliant cameo as a life model by yet another one of Peterborough’s best performers, Kait Dueck. Sassy and bold, Kait gives a performance that’s going to stick with the audience for a long time.
Edward Charette, who plays George’s nephew, give a double performance as British abstract artist Ben Nicholson, a character who provides another perspective on the class difference between the Pitmen Painters and the artistic elite.
Although The Pitmen Painters is wickedly funny and extremely intelligent, the show is also subtly poignant. The way the men’s artistic understanding grows organically before the audience eyes pulls on the heartstrings.
In one scene at the end of the first act, as the five men break the fourth wall and address the audience about experiencing the art of Vincent Van Gogh for the first time, I found myself overcome and had to force down the lump in my throat. This is the moment in the play when the men truly become artists, when the audience realizes that art is for anyone with a artist’s soul and not just for the educated and the elite.
The Pitmen Painters explores a number of subjects including the definition of art, the relationship between art and class, and the importance of community, loyalty, and self-reliance. A thoughtful and highly intellectual show, The Pitmen Painters has the right balance of comedy not to get bogged down with art jargon and theory.
With its remarkable cast, thoughtful and emotional script, and perfect direction, The Pitmen Painters is a truly special production. If you’ve ever created anything — be it a painting, a song, a story, or anything else artistic — you must come out and see this show. The Pitmen Painters will connect with your soul.
The Pitmen Painters runs from April 8th to 15th at Market Hall, with all performances at 8 p.m. except for a 2 p.m. matinee on April 10th. Tickets (including a $3 box office service fee) are $28 general admission or $15 for students and arts workers. Tickets are available at the Market Hall box office and at Moondance (cash only).