When the curtain comes down on act one of 1st Stage’s The Pitmen Painters the audience bursts into applause—and why not? Breaking the fourth wall, our five coalminers turn to us and with exuberant joy express the power of art to transform the lives of ordinary people. Sure, we are a bit disappointed by that untied thread in the plot left dangling from what would otherwise be an uplifting evening of theatre about the untapped voices of the working classes. As we head to the lobby, after combing the program for some indication of an intermission, we remain uncertain of the future. Did the actors forget to take a curtain call? Did the director decide to forgo the curtain call for that aesthetic moment of shock we experienced as we stared befuddled at the empty stage? Or will that loose thread blossom into a powerful second act that can somehow trump the first—the first that filled us with wonder?
…a show worth seeing
Happily, the second act ties that loose thread; unhappily, it does not bloom, instead taking a bit of the air out of the room as the play transforms from a tightly knit historical drama about the democratization of culture into simply a history dramatized, a history sadly without the exuberance that playwright Lee Hall would have us believe.
Based on a true story, The Pitmen Painters gives us the Depression-era tale of five working class men—mostly “pitmen” (a kind of coalminer)—who, after deciding to take an art appreciation class through their Union, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, develop into true lovers and practitioners of art. Most of the men began working in the mines in their early teens; one non-miner had lived through a mustard gas attack during World War I. Their experience of art was negligible, and of the art world—it was as foreign to them as the professional theatre world is to most Americans: the world of Broadway, celebrity, and the wealthy patron.
When their university lecturer arrives, prepared with his university-styled lesson plans about the esoteric reality of art, we quickly learn that he knows nothing about the reality of British working class life in the 1930s. He quickly adjusts, arriving at a brilliant solution: instead of teaching an art appreciation class, he will offer the men an art making class, thus giving them a direct experience of art.
Pitmen’s first act works brilliantly because of the authenticity of this culture clash, and as the men begin to understand art not as something that others do but as something that they themselves construct, their confidence grows and, with it, the power dynamic shifts between the lecturer as teacher and the coalminer as student. The act one climax highlights that shift, as the workers have become the teachers, successfully putting the “professor” and his elitist understanding of the world in its place.
Matt Dewberry plays the role of the young PhD candidate Robert Lyon with just the right about of humility. Later in the play, when his exploitation of the situation becomes clear, his remorse is heartfelt even if playwright Lee Hall misses that opportunity to give more substance to act two.
The five workers are played by Ryan Alan Jones as the young lad, Alden Michels as George Brown, James Miller as Harry Wilson, Dylan Myers as Oliver Kilbourn, and Jason Tamborini as Jimmy Floyd. They do a superb job of creating a group, yet contentious, identity.
Jones’ unemployed lad is eager for knowledge. His scene arguing with Miller’s Marxist Harry over the presence of Freudian symbols in his political art is a true gem (the workers had just recently completed an Intro to Psychology class and, hence, the lad’s cursory knowledge of Freud.)
Meanwhile, Michels portrays the “by-the-book” union leader George with a marvelous puffed-up charm. His attempts to keep control over his “underlings” added numerous moments of comedy to the first act.
Tamborini does an equally fantastic job capturing the simplicity of Jimmy, whose primitive artistic style initially takes London’s elitist art world by storm.
The true artist star of these coalminers is Myers’ Oliver, however; and Myers gives the longtime pitman the sensibility and passion of an artist, now long buried beneath layers of coal dust. As Oliver’s star rises he meets Helen Sutherland, played by MiRan Powell; she is the wealthy patron of the London art world who reaches out to him without understanding how her “helpful” hand might very well be the hand that ruins him.
Stephanie Schmalzle rounds out the cast, playing exuberantly the eager young art student moonlighting as a nude model; her scene trying to model for the five miners is just one more gem in act one’s delicious culture clash.
Stevie Zimmerman directs The Pitmen Painters. Her mastery of the first act was quite evident, as the interplay and the timing were dead-on. She had no solution to the challenges of the second act, unfortunately, as the play moves totally out of the classroom and into the larger world where its vision of cultural democracy confronts money and power.
Hall’s writing is the real culprit here, as instead of focusing on the betrayal of the workers and their artistic vision, he decides instead to sing a socialist anthem even though the audience knows that anthem will fade only to be crushed during the 1980s when Maggie Thatcher busts the unions, ending the political and social power of the working classes in England.
Zimmerman’s production team does a fine job. Steven Royal’s open space of a set allows the play’s many locales to happen gracefully and quickly. Kristin Thompson’s lights help differentiate those locations. Costumer Katie Touart makes sure all the characters are well dressed, thus giving the impression that school for coalminers of England in the 1930s was the equivalent of church to the devout in America during that period.
Despite its second act flaws, The Pitmen Painters is a show worth seeing, as so few scripts address the relationship between art and money, or culture and politics. For the most part, we in Washington go to our theatre just assuming that we are seeing the best productions of the best scripts. Seldom do we question the role that the “makers of culture” have on what we see and think about. At the very least, The Pitmen Painters trumpets that voice we seldom hear. At least The Pitmen Painters gives those millions of people out there who find no meaningful representation of themselves on our stages a chance to shine, however briefly.
Running Time: 2 hours and five minutes with a 15 minute intermission.
The Pitmen Painters plays at 1st Stage in Tyson, 1524 Spring Hill Road, McLean VA, on the second floor, through October 13. For tickets click here.