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NY Theater Reviews

(L to R) Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker/ Ph: Joan Marcus

MINERS ARE ARTISTS TOO

By MATT WINDMAN

The entire cast of the London production has come to Broadway to deliver Lee Hall's unofficial follow-up to Billy Elliot.

If the son of a miner can become a rising ballet star, why can’t five miners try their hand at painting? But perhaps it was the miners who inspired that young boy. Lee Hall probably intended his new play The Pitmen Painters to be an unofficial prequel to his popular musical Billy Elliot. Both are powerful, humorous and warm-hearted studies in the power of the arts to transform lives in the working-class cultures of British mining communities.
 
Based on William Feaver’s novel, The Pitmen Painters dramatizes the famous story of the Ashington Group, a collective of five miners in the mid-1930s whose lives are forever changed by participating in an art appreciation class sponsored by the Workers Educational Association in a dank and dingy meeting hall.
 
When professor Robert Lyon initially shows a slide show of Renaissance classics, the miners greet him with blank and confused stares. In response, Lyon instead assigns them to paint their own canvases, which are projected on large screens for the audience to view. From the very start, the men bring a distinctive energy and perspective to their art. Pretty soon, the men receive attention from the critics for their work. They continue to paint during and then after World War II.
 
The motley cast of characters includes the academic lecturer who arrives to teach the miners, a radical socialist, an uptight union official, an injured dental mechanic. Throughout the play, the characters debate the meaning, purpose and politics of art and question how it affects their group identities and individual self-esteems.
 
One of the most interesting relationships involves the sensitive miner Oliver and a rich female art patron, who offers him the rare chance to leave the mines and focus entirely on his art. This opportunity forces him to debate his identity and where he really belongs. The play’s only other female is a young girl who, much to the horror of the men, is only too willing to take her clothes off and pose nude for them.
 
It is truly our good fortune that the entire original English cast has traveled with the Max Roberts’ detailed production to Broadway, including Ian Kelly, Christopher Connel, Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker, Michael Hodgson, Brian Lonsdale, Lisa McGrillis and Phillipa Wilson. They are all individually excellent and make for a fiery and passionate ensemble.