There was no ignoring the poignancy of sitting in a theatre in the heart of a former mining community the day after the death of Margaret Thatcher and watching a play that embodied the pride which made miners fight for their way of life.
In the 1930s miners in the Northumbrian pit village of Ashington had no inkling of what was to come 50 years later.
I looked around the Chesterfield audience and couldn’t help but wonder what they were all thinking.
Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters is a funny play but while very entertaining it is also gravely serious. It raises questions about culture, education and the working classes. It is sentimental and moving but that is kept in check by a political reality that refuses to go away.
It tells the true story of a group of Geordie miners in the Workers’ Educational Association who in 1934 hire a ‘professor’ to teach an art appreciation class and end up becoming feted by their bourgeois middle class mentors.
When the posh academic Robert Lyon (Louis Hilyer) arrives he can barely understand a word the bunch of bantering pitmen say and so, exasperated, he gives up on the lecturing and he gets them to make art themselves.
Their yearning to better themselves and make more of their lives is deeply moving and Hall explores similar themes here to those in Billy Elliot – the clash between culture and the grim reality of working class life.
It poses questions about art under capitalism and when the most talented of the emerging artists, Oliver Kilbourn (Philip Correia), is offered a stipend to become a full time artist he faces a dilemma – should he escape the pit or will he lose his connection to everything that distinguishes him from the educated art world.
Go to see the play to find out which path he takes.
The acting in Max Roberts’ production is superb and each of the characters is wonderfully captured – especially by Joe Caffrey as dentist Harry Wilson and Riley Jones as both the young lad and posh artist Ben Nicolson.
However it is Philip Correia’s monologue describing how he felt when he completed his first painting that captures the essence of the play.
“And when I stopped to look at what I’d done I realised it was light…it was morning…I was literally shaking ‘cos for the first time in me life I had really achieved something…”
A fitting testament to the WEA – which is still offering art courses in towns across the country today.
The Pitmen Painters is a Bill Kenwright production and is on at the Pomegranate Theatre in Chesterfield until Saturday April 13 at 7.30pm with matinees at 2pm on April 10 and 11 and 3pm on April 13. For more information about tickets and times go to http://www.chesterfieldtheatres.co.uk