Vintage theatre retains inspirational qualities

Bill Kenwright production of'THE PITMEN PAINTERS'by Lee Hall'directed by Max Roberts
Bill Kenwright production of'THE PITMEN PAINTERS'by Lee Hall'directed by Max Roberts

Would this Live Theatre Newcastle and National Theatre co-production with the same director, Max Roberts, making a welcome return to Eastbourne after nearly two years, be able to resurrect the previous enthralling performance?

With an entirely new cast, the production is like a bottle of vintage claret, which despite the passing of time, retains its freshness, vigour and capacity to inspire.

Written by Lee Hall, based on William Feaver’s book, it tells the true story of a group of miners in Ashington, Northumberland, who meet every week in the early 1930’s to study art appreciation in a scheme run by the Workers’ Educational Association.

Louis Hilyer is Robert Lyon, the lecturer who soon realizes these hard-bitten miners have little interest in learning about Old Masters or the High Renaissance.

He suggests instead they paint subjects they choose for themselves. By default the Pitmen Painters are born.

Nicholas Lumley plays George, an Alf Garnett-like martinet with an obsession for Trade Union niceties: Joe Caffrey is Harry, gassed in WWI and a committed Marxist; Donald McBride plays Jimmy, never better than when defending his modernist “blob”; and Philip Correia is Oliver who despite burgeoning talent feels unable to accept the patronage offered by Helen Sutherland, wife of a shipping tycoon, played by Suzy Cooper.

As the Young Lad, and Ben Nicholson the avant-garde thirties artist, Riley Jones brings originality to both roles.

Catherine Dryden is Susan, the life-class model who retains her early links with the painters.

This is an uplifting and richly humorous performance which addresses not only philosophical and political issues of the time but also showcases the artistic talents of a unique group of working miners.

In his own old age, Oliver commented, “Once you’ve painted a picture you feel it’s part of your life”. The same might be said about this outstanding play.

The Pitmen Painters continues at the Devonshire Park Theatre tonight (Friday, 7.45pm) and tomorrow (Saturday, 2.30pm, 7.45pm).