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NODA Review - The Pitmen Painters

Before going any further, I think it's worth stressing at the outset that this was one of the happiest,  most worthwhile and interesting evenings I've spent at the theatre in a very long time. Playwright Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot fame) has crafted a play which is richly rewarding and is a deep and multifaceted exploration of the essence of art and culture, as well as an examination of class, politics, education, society… a fully rounded theatrical experience indeed. Based around the true story of the Ashington Group of real ‘Pitmen Painters’ drawn from the Workers Educational Association in the North East of England in the 1930s, the play introduced us to the real life characters who embraced the world of art, taking the audience along with them as they broaden their horizons. This was a very successful production of some quality with every aspect of the staging hitting just the right note: this was a play of ideas which also had heart and humour and made a lasting impression. I have seen few productions which have managed to scale the heights of artistic, political, social and philosophical debate in as entertaining and humorous a way as this one: as interpreted by the team at the Hippodrome, the result was unbeatable.


The stage was effectively an arena for debate throughout the evening and as such, was dressed simply and effectively, enabling quick and easy changes of scene. The screen at the rear of the stage doubled as both a scene setting device and also showed examples of the artwork produced by the artists which was a wonderful touch: this really brought the discussions in the play to life as we could engage with the images themselves as we moved through the play. The simple but effective staging, with excellent technical help from lighting and sound, looked first class and professional throughout. Some thought and care had also gone in to costumes too, everyone on stage fitting the period perfectly without looking stagey or overdone.


The cast provided a masterclass in the art of effective teamwork, with each and every character fitting in perfectly as part of the group dynamic. Andy Fraser excelled as a pernickety George Brown, the organising force behind the Workers Educational Association, providing a perfect portrait of the character. Eventual star of the artistic group, Oliver Kilbourn, was portrayed wonderfully by Martin Cook who again, really brought the character to life. James Clayton was an impish and humorous presence as Jimmy Floyd - another typically excellent performance from James - and the Marxist dental technician Harry Wilson was a very real and believable character from Richard Brook. Samuel Bell gave an exceptional performance as the youngest member of the class (and also doubled up with a nifty little cameo as artist Ben Nicholson) with Richard Holley giving perhaps the best performance I've seen from him on stage as Robert Lyon, the art expert drafted in to teach our working class lads a thing or two about art. Heather Wilson was suitably stately as Helen Sutherland and Rachel Peter was a feisty Susan, both ladies more than holding their own against the preponderance of male performers. Perhaps equally impressively, there wasn't a dodgy accent all night and the atmosphere of the North East was well maintained as a result! The entire cast really worked well together and the overall impression on stage was one of a close-knit team who had clearly enjoyed the challenge of bringing the play to life with clarity and intelligence.


The play has a great deal to say about a great number of things and here, received the skilled direction and capable performances which brought with it a real engagement with the audience. The nature of art and it's place in all of our lives was debated with skill and provided a great deal of food for thought. The social and political background woven into the discussion was honest and faithful and was very much a vital part of the play as the narrative unfolded. The interplay between the characters and their very human frailties and strengths, failings and successes also blossomed in the arena provided for the discussions which were at the heart of the drama. The creation of a very real community on stage; the interesting exploration of a number of important themes; the eliciting of very moving responses from the audience who were engaged on both an emotional and intellectual level throughout the evening: all of these things helped to create a memorable evening in the theatre.


It seems at once both repetitive and redundant to mention particular performances again but somehow, it feels like doing the production less than justice without doing so. It's often said that there are no ‘small parts’ in the theatre as each role provides a vital cog in the machinery of a production which just wouldn't function without each and every nut and bolt being in place. Martin Cook’s great performance as Oliver Kilbourn - ostensibly the leading role in the play - gave us a focus but the interaction between all the men meant that each of the characters became three dimensional and ‘real’: their different reactions, problems, insights and opinions helping to create a whole cast of ‘leading men’. Andy Fraser portrayed the social conscience of his character with a clarity and humour which lingers long in the memory; James Claxton’s skill and wit in delineating Jimmy Floyd’s straightforward take on the world of art - and the way this changes through the course of the play - was superbly well done; Richard Brook’s portrait of the eager Marxist was solid, straightforward and honest; Samuel Bell perfectly captured the frustrated enthusiasm of youth; Martin Cook took the audience with him on his journey of discovery with a sympathetic and finely drawn characterisation; Richard Holley was magnificent as Lyon, perfectly unfolding this complex character and his motives before the audience and letting us draw our own conclusions. Taken altogether, the directors and cast painted a marvellous theatrical picture.


Here was an evening steeped in thought and culture which did a marvellous job of managing - in the words of the BBC’s former credo - to inform, educate and entertain in equal measure. This was an engaging and thoughtful evening which was an all-round winner and, given the political leanings of the piece, when someone of my particular political persuasion (somewhere off to the right of Norman Tebbit) can enjoy an evening at the theatre so much, a form of theatrical alchemy has taken place. Many congratulations to all involved - and many thanks to all at the Hippodrome for providing such a cultural beacon for all.