PREVIEWS ARE UNDERWAY FOR THE BRITISH STAGE HIT “THE PITMEN PAINTERS” WITH AN OFFICIAL OPENING NIGHT SCHEDULED FOR SEPT. 30
by HENRY EDWARDS
After a three-year trek across Great Britain and Ireland, Lee Hall’s critically acclaimed play, “The Pitmen Painters,” has crossed the pond with its entire cast of eight northern British actors intact.
Currently in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the import is scheduled to open officially on Sept. 30.
Max Roberts once again directs.
“Rousing, poignant and true” is the way John Lahr characterized the story of the pitmen painters after seeing the play during its engagement at London’s National Theatre.
In 1934, the British adult education organization known as the Workers' Educational Association provided a small group of North Country miners who lived in the “pit town” of Ashington with a university tutor who would conduct Tuesday evening classes in art appreciation.
When the miners failed to comprehend the teacher's lectures, the instructor (who may have read John Dewey) set out to encourage the novices to “learn by doing.”
Although the request was initially met with reluctance, the off-duty pit men eventually began to apply brush to canvas and to paint portraits of the things they knew.
Calling themselves the Ashington Group, the “unprofessional” painters were blessed with a genuine painter’s eye. Fueled by passion and honesty, they set out to create personal art that would turn out to be an invaluable record of coalfield life.
A mere two years after launching their first artistic endeavor, the Ashington Group became the first working-class artists in British history to have an entire exhibition devoted exclusively to their work.
After World War II interest in the Group faded. Then in 1971, after art historian William Feaver was introduced to the surviving members who in were their mid-sixties and early-seventies by then, the writer was encouraged to set down a critical history of their remarkable endeavors.
Feaver’s “Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group, 1934-1984,” published in 1993, went on to provide the inspiration for Lee Hall’s play after Hall discovered the book in a second-hand bookshop.
Hall, 44, is best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Stephen Daldry’s 1999 film, “Billy Elliot,” and for the Tony Award winning book as well as the lyrics for the internationally acclaimed 2009 stage musical based on the motion picture.
Prior to the arrival of “The Pitmen Papers” at the National Theatre, the playwright sat for interview with Brian Logan of The London Sunday Times.
Hall “knew instantly he had a play on his hands: a celebration, he says, of the tradition of working-class self-improvement,” writes Logan.
The journalist goes on to quote Hall who says: “Economic and cultural reform were part of the same project for these guys working in the shipyards, the pits or the fields. Their effort to change the world was about changing themselves as well. But that was lost by the 1980s….working-class culture has been increasingly related to lumpen consumerism. We've been sold a version of ourselves that blots out a whole history of achievement….
“One of art's important roles is to memorialize. ‘Billy Elliot,’ ‘The Pitmen Painters’ - they're both about cultural and political failures in years gone by. Examining the past, and celebrating it, is a way of fuelling a political future that may be better than the way things currently are.”
“The Pitman Painters” earned rave reviews when it opened in London.
“Lee Hall’s new play and Max Roberts’ sublime production are ablaze with intellectual vigor, political passion and incendiary emotional energy. A beautiful work of art that everybody should see,” declared The Times.
The Evening Standard called the play “a glorious instant classic that is tragic, funny and illuminating in one fell swoop.”
“Breathtaking in its scope … Lee Hall’s remarkable play provides a fascinating debate about art and socialism…” commented The Guardian. “Hall's larger point is that art by itself cannot change the world: this has to come from political initiatives which will produce a fairer society.”
The Manhattan Theatre Club presentation is scheduled to run through Nov. 14.