By Marilyn Stasio
October 1, 2010
Here it is, only the beginning of a new theater season, and Broadway already has a feel-good — make that a feel-great — hit in “The Pitmen Painters.” Scribe Lee Hall draws on the same inspirational themes that served him so well in “Billy Elliot the Musical” with this heartbreakingly funny play about a group of Northumberland coal miners who in 1934 sign up for a union-sponsored art appreciation course and become the darlings of the U.K. art set. Max Roberts’ helming is flawless, and bully for Equity for preserving the extraordinary ensemble of character actors from the original British production.
Everything about this show, from the depressingly bare union hall where the miners meet for their weekly classes to the rough regional dialect with which they assault the tender ears of their upper-class instructor, says: This is real. This is life.
In fact, Hall took his inspiration from a book art critic William Feaver wrote about the art collective known as the Ashington Group, whose member artists (reduced in number here for dramatic purposes) took their name from their hometown in Northumberland. In the 1930s, hundreds of mines were operating in this northeastern region, sending more than a million men underground to work 10-hour shifts in the pits.
In this gritty environment, it seems a miracle that an insular community like Ashington could produce a bona-fide talent like Oliver Kilbourn, the muscular painter played with devastating impact by Christopher Connel — let alone a whole labor collective of miner-artists.
Many of the men from this part of England, like Jimmy, the not-too-bright workhorse played with disarming good humor by David Whitaker, left school at 10 to work underground. “I was scared stiff, I was,” he says of the dangerous job he performed in pitch darkness, in a moving speech that pours out when he loses himself in contemplation of a white-on-white abstract painting…