Plenty of laughs are overwhelmed by labored art-speak in The Pitmen Painters

People who write tend to enjoy the sound of their own voice, and why not? When you've been able to pen a story, a play or anything else, you have earned the right to happily wallow in your own verbiage. Up to a point.

Lee Hall, the author of The Pitmen Painters, is an accomplished writer (he wrote the screenplay for the film Billy Eliot, as well as the book and lyrics for the Broadway musical adaptation). But in this play, Hall is so intent on making points about painting that the art of theater suffers.

The play is based on a true story of untutored men (mostly coal miners) in England who, without any formal artistic training, met in 1934 at an art appreciation class and eventually became the heralded Ashington Group of painters.

For 70 minutes, Pitmen is quite lively and amusing, as we follow a quintet of these average Joes as they explore the more ethereal byways of art and creativity. Their rough-hewn candor is charming, and their awakening to new possibilities in their lives is a pleasure to watch.

Trouble is, there is an additional 70 minutes filled with so much didactic lecturing and repetitious art-speak that you want to grab these fellows and toss them back into the mines, just to get them to be quiet for a bit.

It all amounts to two hours and 20 minutes of promises unfulfilled. Even with fine performances from the cast, under the able direction of Sarah May, there's no escape route out of Hall's labyrinthine and ultimately laborious discussions about Art.

These miners (and one dental technician) in northern England have gathered for a class sponsored by the government's Worker Educational Association. But when art historian Robert Lyon shows up, the gents don't understand a word he's saying. (When he references Titian, they respond, "Bless you.")

So Lyon decides to skip the slides of famous paintings and have his charges do their own work. After some early grousing, the students come in with their own creations that are then analyzed by their fellow artists and Lyon.

This is the part of the show that works like a charm, as each man presents his brushwork with a mixture of embarrassment and pride. Photos of the actual Ashington Group paintings are projected, sometimes in close-up, providing a great view of the canvases.

However, when the show passes the one-hour mark, the script begins springing leaks. Led by the loquacious miner Oliver (a persistent Christopher M. Bohan), the men often speak with a level of sophistication that would not be typical for manual laborers with only a grade-school education.

Sure, blue-collar workers can be brilliant and have extensive vocabularies, but in order to believe that we have to be shown their stories. Unfortunately, playwright Hall is so obsessed with airing all his ideas about art (What is the value of art?  How does art transform the individual? etc.) that he provides precious little character depth.

In addition, a sub-plot involving the rich art patron Helen Sutherland (Mary Alice Beck) and her not-so-high-minded attraction to artists never develops into anything substantial.

The actors portraying the other art students do what they can with this script.

All in all, it's a well-performed staging of a flawed play. But if art lectures are your thing, you may consider Pitmen Painters a minor masterpiece.

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About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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