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Hall’s ‘The Pitmen Painters’ at Richmond Theatre

| Hidden London, Theatre | 06/08/2013

Louis Hilyer as Robert Lyon leads his new art group.

Showing until August 10, 2013
Live Theatre + National Theatre

Appropriately enough, the plinth above the Richmond stage reads ‘To wake the soul by tender strokes of art.’ Nothing better describes Max Robert’s direction of Lee Hall’s ‘The Pitmen Painters’. Those familiar with ‘Billy Eliot’ know of Hall’s passion for culture for all; in the programme notes he explains this as an alternative to the ‘dumbing-down’ of the Arts.

From the original ‘Pitmen Painters’ (The Ashington Group of Northumberland) are drawn five main characters who allow for expansive dramatisation. The audience is immediately warmed by Hall’s comic writing, ranging from ironic observation to farcical gags such as “A Titian!” – “Bless you!” whilst the combinations of one or three projection-screens produce a more serious engagement with the art.

Uncle George, the Captain Mannering-esque ring-leader, union-book at the ready, is afforded subtle characterisation by Nicholas Lumley. It balances with the intense portrayal by Joe Caffrey as Harry, whose innate intelligence vents fiery socialist principles. Meanwhile, Donald McBride as Jimmy is extremely funny as the self-depreciating old fool who is in fact not so foolish. Louis Hilyer offers depth and gravity as art tutor Robert Lyon – if at first raking his hair in exasperation! There is top-level support from the excellent Catherine Dryden, and from Riley Jones’ contrasting turns as the fragile young man and the splendidly Toff-ish Ben Nicholson.

Riley Jones, Donald McBride, Suzy Cooper, Joe Caffrey, Nicholas Lumley, Philip Correia

Riley Jones, Donald McBride, Suzy Cooper, Joe Caffrey, Nicholas Lumley, Philip Correia

Just when you wonder if a serious art group should cause such merriment, the comedy foils some sincere and poignant moments of pathos. Each character develops a personal interaction not only with their art but with their self. For, as their teacher comments, “We don’t go to Art to find out about the world. We go to find out about ourselves.” Towards the end of the first act, we realise that we are also going on a journey with them.

An upper-class art-collector named Helen Sutherland emerges as a major figure. This smartly contained performance by Suzy Cooper dissembles the notions of ‘High Art’ and ‘Lower Class’ – the difference between her life and the miner unearthing surprising similarities. She offers a stipend to Oliver, the rising star of the group, as beautifully portrayed by Philip Correia, explaining that “I see something of me… that you are striving for something better.” Their platonic relationship is also a broken love-affair causing essential self-analysis. Likewise, when Oliver visits Mr Lyon at his Edinburgh studio, his former teacher rants: “Don’t be scared of the world. Take chances. Make something new.”

‘The Pitmen Painters’ is its own work of art, and highly recommended viewing.

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