Have you seen the latest exhibit at the Metropolitan lately? No? Don’t worry. Just go to the Samuel J. Friedman Theater instead, where Lee Hall’s play The Pitmen Painters is offering a master class in artistic discussion and debate.
Hall’s play, which was written partly as a response to cuts in the funding for artistic education, was inspired by William Feaver’s book about the Ashington Group, a group of miners who took an art appreciation class in the 1930s and 40s. As these pragmatic, practical men, many of whom did not continue their education beyond the age of ten, develop their artistic talents, they achieve a surprising level of fame and success. Each of the men has a different perspective on art, influenced by their political and social experiences, and considering the men’s lack of formal education, their debates are surprisingly developed, and at times feel a bit heavy-handed. But the undeniable authenticity of these actors’ performances elevates the show above any discrepancies.
The discussions about art and its meaning (a favorite topic of these men) serve as a forum for a great amount of relevant commentary, on the state of arts, politics, the economy and society. While the show is set more than sixty years in the past in England, these topics are still extremely relevant for today’s audience and the enthusiasm of these characters is contagious. The teacher, Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) discovers a latent talent in Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel), who also inspires interest in the rich art dealer Phillippa Wilson (Helen Sutherland) and the men begin to exhibit their work and be recognized as a social novelty – artists who are working class. The paintings are seamlessly worked into the show, shown to the audience as slide projections.
In an admirable performance, Connel depicts Oliver’s fear of change and understandable desperation to cling to his identity as a miner, even when he is presented with the opportunity to pursue a different path in life. As his fellow classmates, Deka Walmsley, Michael Hodgson and David Whitaker each bring humor and gravity to their performances, as does Kelly, who suffers from guilt for having exploited the workers. The men form a fantastic ensemble, with real camaraderie and affection. It is believable to think they have known each other their entire lives.
While The Pitmen Painters is a moving and even inspiring show, there is an undeniable irony in listening to art being discussed so passionately on Broadway, where the compromise of quality for profit is an everyday occurrence. And hearing the men talk about how art should be available to everyone in a theater where seats cost more than $100 could be described as something more bitter than irony. But there’s something to be said about even having the conversation to begin with, right?