THE difficult themes of class, politics, social injustice and high art are captured eloquently in a production of The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall, who also wrote Billy Elliot.
Set in the 1930s, the play, which opened at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal earlier this week, tells the tale of a group of miners (along with one young man on the dole and former dental mechanic who was gassed during the First World War) who take an art appreciation class with the Workers’ Educational Association. Set in Ashington in Northumberland, it is based on the real-life story of what later became known as the Ashington Group.
The miners are straightforward, down-to-earth and likeable - and most of them left school when they were just 10-years-old. They have no formal knowledge of art theory or history and when their slightly pompous teacher Robert Lyon (played by David Leonard) tries to teach them about the Renaissance, they are decidedly uninspired.
Instead, Mr Lyon thinks it would be better if they have a go at painting themselves and this unleashes their creativity and allows them to become art critics of each other’s work,
They capture the mundane aspects of life: working down the pit, going to the social club, a street scene but with remarkable flair and expression given that they have had no previous training.
It is not long before the influential and wealthy art collector Helen Sutherland (Joy Brook) takes notice of the painters. They are invited down to London and Mrs Sutherland even offers to become a patron to one of the best painters in the group, Oliver Kilbourn (Trevor Fox), which he turns down because he does not want to cut himself off from the community that created him.
Along the way, the artists discover some of the murky aspects of the art world, such as how quickly art can become unfashionable and the fact that it is often a person’s background which determines their success.
The play throws up some difficult questions to which there are no easy answers like whether being affluent gives a person the time to practice their art or whether it is their experiences in the real world that provide the best material.
But the play, which despite its serious undercurrents is humorous throughout, ends on a high as the Second World War ends and the pitmen, who all continued to work as painters into old age and remain in Ashington, look to a brighter future of social reform, including the establishment of the NHS.
• The Pitmen Painters runs until Saturday. For more details visit www.royalcentre-nottingham.co.uk.