When Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters first appeared in London at the National Theatre in 2008 it was an instant success. Considering a real group of Ashington miners who excelled at art in the 1930s without any formal training, it met with such universal acclaim that it was not so much a question of if there would be a West End transfer, as when. Now that it has obtained its new home at the Duchess Theatre, there is little point in considering once again whether the play is good (believe us, it is), so instead we’ll think about why.
A few years ago a critic assessing the Turner prize suggested that a certain artist should win, even though the piece on display was not them at their best. In the context of the installation in question, this was a problematic comment. Surely its virtue was that it created a unique experience for the viewer, incomparable to anything else. Introducing any idea that it could be compared forced us to consider it in a way that possibly suggested it wasn’t up to much at all.
The Pitmen Painters succeeds in revealing the brilliance of the miners’ creations without ever indulging in blind idolization because it avoids the issue of direct comparison with anything else. Whenever a miner asks if they are any good as an artist, it is the indirect answers they receive that are illuminating, introducing ideas of technique versus quality of expression, and of communal experience.
The play also considers the British class system in the ’30s and ’40s, and how the same end product can signify different things depending upon the creator. It also pinpoints those times when the miners’ work did not develop, and although it is a frequently tender story, it is never one that paints a rosier picture than the reality would justify. Suffice to say that if you don’t enjoy The Pitmen Painters, you may have to conclude that theatre itself just isn’t for you!
Until 21 January 2012. Tickets: 0844 482 9672 or from the Duchess Theatre website.