Pitmen Painters – Sunderland Royalty Theatre

If there’s one thing that Lee Hall’s script for ‘Pitmen Painters’ does, above all else, it is to remind us of our obsession with social mobility. Over eighty years later and the story portrayed by these miners is as true now as it was then, loyalty to working class routes and a struggle to see art as anything other than an exclusive domain for the wealthy, the underlying theme being a fixation on an individual’s role in the social strata. What one could, as opposed to should, achieve.

The story follows a group of pitmen, who take an art appreciation class from 1934 unable to find an economics tutor, hoping for something a little different. What they soon experience is that they’re actually very talented artists, fit for exhibitions and public displays of the work, working class routes and lack of life choices expose their own renaissance, like Van Gogh before them (an artist with which they resonate) they offer something different to an art world, and social class, devoid of change yet constantly hungry for something new.

Graham Alex’ has, arguably, the most important role in his part of ‘Harry Wilson’, Dental Mechanic. Harry is a socialist, probably because of his complete disillusionment in faith following his service in the Great War. Through his dialogue the experiences he’s had in the trenches and his subsequent return to the “normality” of working life clash violently with the groups art teacher, Mr. Lyon (David Farn), who leads a privileged lifestyle and less hazardous occupation but also served in the Somme. Both men are attempting to define art for the benefit of the group, but there is an underlying theme that neither man is right nor wrong, they simply have different ways of seeing the same challenge.

Helen Sutherland (Corrine Kilvington) offers Oliver (Matt McNamee) a patronage. He turns this down because of his conflicts with breaking from a group dynamic. Scared to leave the mine, as it’s the only thing he knows, there is a clash within him to see painting as any sort of profession.

So too does Sam Elliot’s unnamed young man clash with his Uncle George Brown, the fantastic Kristian Colling. Unemployed and looking for definition at a young age, Elliot abandons a chance at a prescribed occupation, going instead to fight for King and country. Killed in action, his removal on stage comes as a void, he is unseen and unheard in passing, albeit briefly, but we do notice his absence. It’s a dialogue heavy play and much of that is driven by six men who always seem to have something to say, their artistic pursuits are universally the same, but individually – much like a rock band – the members have individual tastes and styles they fight to assert. Even silent in the background, none of the performers drop their character.

As the play draws to a close, there is a toast given on the eve of nationalization, a hope for a better future and that the experiences of two world wars in a generation have improved chances for the working man and a fairer distribution of wealth. Over half a century later and it seems we’re still hoping. That said; director Caroline Chapman and cast produced a performance which had me hanging on every word. And when something resonates this much, we’re not really loosing that much at all. Outstanding.

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