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The Pitmen Painters

September 19th, 2009 (11:13 pm)

Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters is revived for the second time at the National Theatre, still with its original principal cast - led by Ian Kelly (himself something of a Renaissance man, being an award-winning biographer as well as an actor and director) as art lecturer Robert Lyon, and Christopher Connel as the 'star' of the Ashington Group of painters, Oliver Kilbourn. My placing of the tutor before the student may be unintentionally revelatory, but inadequately represents how far the painters led their own development. Ideology is a theme - principally the inadequacy of any of the dogmas current in the 1930s to explain what the pitmen painters did, and the packaging of the mining painters as a 'group' by the art establishment of professionals and patrons, obscuring their varied talent as individuals. The first half is practically a play in itself; the second, a coda set during the Second World War and after on the eve of nationalization, dwells on the aspirations of the Attlee era, building up to the unfurling of Kilbourn's Ellington Colliery banner and its promise of mock Tudor houses and gardens for the workers, symbolizing in the play the storming of the bastions of cultural privilege by the working class. As a surtitle notes as the end, as Hetton Silver Band's recording of the mining composer Robert Saint's hymn tune Gresford, the miners' University of Ashington never arose, and there are today no working collieries in the area. Perhaps the most powerful scene for our times, though, shortly before the end, comes when Oliver Kilbourn visits Robert Lyon in his studio, relocated from Newcastle to Edinburgh after Lyon was appointed professor at Edinburgh College of Art largely (the play suggests) on the back of his self-promotion as tutor of the Ashington Group, and is rendered in chalk and charcoal by Lyon as a sentimentalized rustic labourer. The exchange on privilege, where it lies, who has it and what it means to use it is certainly one for today's cultural commentators to chew upon.