In the mid-thirties, with war looming and the Labour victory of 1945 still far off, a handful of coal miners and tradesmen from the northern England town of Ashington took an art-appreciation class. Their aim was not dissimilar from that of today’s average purchaser of The Da Vinci Code. “Look,” says Harry (Michael Hodgson), addressing the instructor, Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), “we just want to knaa the secret behind what’s gannin’ on.” Informed that there is no secret—that art is no conspiracy, but an open dialogue between artwork and audience—another student (Brian Lonsdale) presses, “If there’s not a secret—how come we don’t knaa what’s gannin’ on?”
These men would soon become the painters of the Ashington Group, a celebrated assemblage of ”untutored” Geordie coal miners who turned a union-sponsored art course into an “outsider art” phenomenon, simply by picking up brushes and starting to paint. The often-excellent art they created, much to the nation’s surprise, became a symbol of ascendant British socialism and its potential to unleash the energies of all citizens, regardless of class or wealth. The Group’s technique (on display in a stolid series of slides) was as workmanlike as the subterranean drudgery of their day jobs — jobs that, remarkably, they never quit, even at the height of their fame. The work, in all its danger and monotony, supplied them with their chief subject, life underground in “the pit,” Ashington’s massive, treacherous Woodhorn coalfield. Playwright Lee Hall has visited these blackened wastes before, in another tale of unschooled art flowering defiantly in the midst of bituminous ruin, Billy Elliot. The Pitmen Painters, which arrives on Broadway after a successful run in London, is another feel-good story with a grim social undergirding. This one feels a good deal more pedagogical and far, far less personal: It’s about a group, after all — and, moreover, about a class.
It’s the individual personalities who sparkle here, and make Pitmen more than just a good-hearted, Geordie-accented lecture series. Christopher Connel turns in a deceptively modest performance as Oliver Kilbourn, the group member most torn between life in the mine and the promise of weightlessness offered by the beckoning art world. David Whitaker, as dim, avid Jimmy, brings unexpected depths to a mostly comic role. (He’s tasked with the perhaps inevitable “Titian”/”Bless you” gag and reacts to modern art with the classic “How much did you pay for it?”)
The Ashington Group was a bona fide phenomenon, but their story didn’t end in triumph. Neither did British socialism, and Hall is chiefly concerned with illustrating that link. Pitmen is, undeniably, a slideshow, and director Max Roberts has embraced the instructive, slightly elegiac tone instead of trying to flee into theatrical abstraction. This is, after all, a play that delivers lines like “Art is a place where you can understand your whole life from” with head held high and banners snapping in the wind. It’s uncynical and forthright, like its subjects, and when Hall finally gets into the sticky question of exploitation—are the pitmen truly artists? or just a traveling curiosity show curated by their betters?—he leaves it as a question for the audience. Who gets to be an artist? What constitutes an elite? Is art a gnostic cult or a lingua franca? These are questions we continue to ask — though perhaps we should simply pick up a brush.
At the Samuel J. Friedman Theater; open run.