The Pitmen Painters

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Director Max Roberts; National Theatre, London, Until 14 April

This funny, warm and thought-provoking play tells the true story of a group of Ashington miners who went to an art appreciation course run by the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) and became renowned painters. Lee Hall explores similar themes here to those in his previous work, Billy Elliot, as so-called "high culture" clashes with the often grim reality of working class life. The main difference, as Hall points out in his production notes, is that here we see a collective endeavour towards self-improvement, one which encounters support rather than incomprehension within the mining community.

This revisiting of the theme by no means reduces the drama of the piece. The characters are distinct, believable and well drawn. There is George, the meticulous union man, forever referring disputes to the regional committee; "Young Lad", his unemployed nephew; Jimmy, the ageing miner looking for a reason to leave the house; Harry, the well-read Communist "dental mechanic" who would rather be doing economics; and Oliver, the lonely, self-sacrificing heart of the play.

When Robert Lyon, the Master of Painting at Armstrong College, arrives at their hut with a bag of Renaissance slides, he has little in common with his students. Their lives have been by necessity insular, defined by the shift pattern and the pit village. He arrives with good intentions but is exasperated when they expect him to tell them what the paintings mean. He argues that the viewer creates the meaning, or at least mediates that created by the artist. Sitting among a conspicuously privileged audience, I was struck by a parallel - whereas I felt Hall was puncturing the art lecturer's pomposity, many of the audience seemed to be more amused by the miners' apparent ignorance.

Yet as the play develops it becomes clear that Hall's intention is certainly not to patronise the miners. This is no Pygmalion. As the miners begin "seeing by doing" (Lyon's catchphrase) they challenge Lyon's perceptions as well as their own. In the process they pose fascinating questions about art under capitalism. In particular, when Oliver is offered a stipend to become a full time artist, he faces a dilemma. If he escapes the alienating labour of the pit, will he also lose his connection to the community that differentiates his paintings from those of the schooled and individualistic art world? What impact will the direct commodification of his art have on its content? The rest of the group respond in intriguing and sometimes unexpected ways.

There are several historical allusions woven through the plot - the impact of the world wars and the Depression, the ultimately dashed hopes of nationalisation, as well as the repression of sexual desire. The group's art is not lionised uncritically, although if I had one small criticism it would be that its weaknesses are mainly pointed out by the least sympathetic character, Oliver's would-be patron. But this really is a play to appreciate, and a wonderful tribute to the work of the teachers and students of the WEA.