Paul Herbert, Michael Wild, John Prowse

Last weekend, I attended the United Players of Vancouver’s take on the The Pitmen Painters, Lee Hall’s thought-provoking, historical play about the barrier transcendence of art on ordinary lives. The story is loosely based on the true story of the Ashington Group of painters, composed largely of miners lacking artistic training, who met regularly over the course of 50 years from 1934 to 1984.

Interestingly, Hall’s most famous work to date is his 2000 drama, Billy Elliot, which is also set in a coal-mining town. Exerting only slightly less sentimental gravity, The Pitmen Painters demonstrates Hall’s ingenious ability for embracing controversial subject matters such as class and culture struggles. Concealed within an entertaining but straightforward storyline, Hall’s touching, humourous work raises questions about creativity, politics, and individuality, none of which are clearly answered.

The play opens at a meeting of four miners and one dental technician, attending an art appreciation class sponsored by the Worker’s Educational Association (WEA). These working men lead uneventful lives, toiling ten hours daily in sweaty, dingy mines. They left formal education at the early ages of 10 or 11. However, these five yearn to better their minds and thus spend their free hours in affordable WEA-subsidized classrooms. The men had originally signed up for economics, but the WEA was only able to obtain an art teacher. This class would introduce the miners to an entirely new world that they would have otherwise not explored.

The journey begins with their visiting art lecturer, Robert Lyon (Michael Wild). In depicting the professor, Wild strikes an almost perfect balance of eccentricity and pomp. However, Lyon soon recognizes that the only way for his students to bridge the gargantuan chasm of appreciation for art is to actively create it, rather than to merely study it. Over the span of the next 10 years, Lyon guides his pupils through self-discovery and intellectual development.

The dichotomy of their creativity and modest occupations are appealing to the British public. In time, their artistic work garners enough fame to be exhibited in well-known galleries, attracting the attention of Helen Sutherland. Alexis Quednau portrays the fiery P&O Ferries heiress, whose status stirs simultaneous but polarizing feelings of resentment and idolization in the miners.

Paul Herbert, Michael Wild, John Prowse
[L to R: Paul Herbert, Michael Wild, John Prowse (kneeling)]

Throughout their creative evolution, the miners remain true to one other and to their humble profession. This is highlighted when a central character, Oliver Kilbourn (Paul Herbert), is granted an astonishing opportunity to be liberated from the mines and seek his artistic potential. As much as the play broaches themes of self-awareness, individuality and free-will, it also evokes commentary on camaraderie, class struggle and community loyalty.

The only minor criticism for this theatre piece may be that the second half seemed stagnant by comparison to the revelations made in the first. The themes had already been sufficiently exposed and were thus unnecessarily repetitive. The seating in the economical quarters of the Jericho Arts Centre compelled snug acknowledgement with your fellow seat-mate.

While the pitmen are sworn together as a group, their distinctive temperaments cannot be subdued. Hall’s play is bursting with quick quips and blissfully amusing dialogue exchanges due to the often humorous clash of extreme personalities.

The five actors who portray the miners (Keith Gordey, John Prowse, James Gill, Kurtis Maguire, Paul Herbert) are directed by self-professed theatre gypsy, Jack Paterson. Under his judicious guidance, they vivify each character and scene with fluid conviction. Gordey, who plays the stiff and rule-abiding George, expertly mimics the exasperating nature of his character. Prowse is absolutely lovable as Jimmy, played with the careless slouch of a simple-minded labourer.

The costumes (designed by Lisa Sadler) allow true grit and realism for the characters, from Jimmy’s hanging sleeves to Harry’s bright sweater vest, meant to single him out. Gill, as Harry, gives a provoking performance, imbuing his character with depth while spewing out political lamentations. Maguire proves his versatility – calm and carefree as Ben Nicholson; heated and restless as the Young Lad. Herbert soulfully portrays the story’s central figure, Oliver Kilbourn, one of the Ashington group’s original founders. He lends a sympathetic identity to the talented and aesthetically sensitive Oliver.

The characters are able thrive on stage thanks to the sparingly effective and intuitive set design and lighting (Jessica Oostergo, Graham Ockley). The nuanced variation in lights allowed the tight quarters to emulate different times and vast spaces. The simplistic but ingenious set arrangement, consisting of only five chairs, a single table, a wood panel backdrop and several suspended frames granted three distinct, yet equally pleasing viewing points for the audience. Its versatility permits the stage to be transformed from classroom to mansion to art gallery and more, all the while showcasing the art of the pitmen.

So who is truly qualified to draw a blob? Is it valued more if drawn by the rich and educated? Does it remain unintelligible rubbish if drawn by the working class?

Come enjoy this bitingly illuminating piece of theatre at Jericho Arts Centre through February 16.

Photos by Doug Williams.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.