The Pitmen Painters
The People's Theatre
13 June 2011
The first time that Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters was in our region was the professional production at Live Theatre along Newcastle's Quayside.
I viewed that performance with open mouthed awe. It was well before my days as a hobbyist theatre reviewer but even then I would have gave it a magnificent 5*'s.
Tonight -and for the rest of the SOLD OUT week- it is the turn of the amateurs. Hall (of Billy Elliot fame) has given special permission for the first staging of this North East tale by an amdram team.
The Pitmen Painters is the story and fine social commentary on the harsh North East working platform. Seen through the eyes of five Ashington pitmen; struggling with the many hours underground for a pittance of a wage. They need more out of their existence of work-home-work, so the onsite Union devise up a deflection tactic (absolutely nothing to do with their work) of creating an art appreciation society. What starts off as looking at unfamiliar and alien pieces set by their tutor Robert Lyon, turns into competition between the miners at who can produce the best art between them all with a humourous-but subtle-edge, but remain totally focused as a group. What follows is a wonderfully funny tale of 'whoever you are you can be whatever you want to be'.
Given that The People's Theatre is an amateur theatre, you would think that this production would be very much lower in expectations to the more professional offerings of the original in 2007. You would be very very wrong to think along these lines. From the staging to the lighting, the audio visual delights to the wonderful acting of the local players, The Pitmen Painters is a smash, it was very very close to the Max Roberts directed play all those years ago. The Pitmen's has of course gone on to score rave reviews in Broadway on the other side of the pond. George Brown played by Harry Gilbert took off the very much nose-in-his-union-rule-book character with so much realism that I wanted to join up there and then. The humour of the down to earth workmen surrounding the styles of their painting and practice was so upbeat that even the sometimes glum Marxist Harry Wilson played by Mike Smith cracked up a few times. Jimmy Floyd played by Steven Robertson kept the humour flowing with some fantastic scenes. The youthful essence of the play rested on the shoulders of the 'Young Lad' played by Steven Wallace, his performance reminded me of Pike out of BBC's 'Dads Army' he even had a long stripey scarf to boot. Lyon's commanding part played by Matthew Cummins kept the balance between roll on the floor laughter and serious educational desires. Star painter and keen to 'get it' Oliver Kilbourn played by Pete McAndrew has a major role alongside Helen Sutherland played by the fab Val Russell, his talent was immediately picked up by art collector Sutherland, who wanted him to give up his 9 to 5 to fund his ambitions. The interaction between these two was fantastic to see, cumulating in terrific scenes that the audience grasped. Grace Robson made up the numbers by playing a life art model Susan Parks, her feisty character certainly was eye opening.
Chris Heckels directing has done a brilliant job with fantastic actors to turn this play into the hit that it is. It is really exciting that full houses will be enjoying, laughing and contemplating what the Pitmen had to go through to paint and show off their art.
Superb production from Derek Nellist (stage design), Lighting (Richard Flood) and Tom Saunders (projections) gave this a very crisp feel, buzzing with energy.
I cant give this 5 out of 5 as a rating as a few lines were talked over by other characters, and have to say that at the back of the theatre it was a little hard to hear audibly. Altogether though this was a superb performance that I have been used to at People's. Nothing at all amateur about this staging, well done
Runs until 18 June