PITMEN PAINTERS at TheatreWorks is stunning

(T0p)Paul Whitworth in the West Coast Premiereof Lee Hall's THE PITMEN PAINTERSat TheatreWorks.Photo credit: Tracy Martin.

(Bottom) Jackson Davis, Paul Whitworth, James Carpenter, and Nicholas Pelczarin the West Coast Premiere of Lee Hall's THE PITMEN PAINTERS at TheatreWorks.Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka

PITMEN PAINTERS by Lee Hall adapted from the book by William Feaver. Directed by Leslie Martinson. TheatreWorks, Center For The Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA. 650-463-1960 or www.theatreworks.org. Through February 12, 2012.

TheatreWorks has created a two hour and 20 minute of stimulating, entertaining evening from a rather didactic, a bit overly long script that should not be missed. The superb acting by a cast that is a who’s who of the Bay Area, spirited direction by Leslie Martinson and stunning production values coalesce in this West Coast premiere of The Pitmen Painters.

Author Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, the movie and the book for the musical, has taken William Feaver’s story and wrote the play on commission for a Newcastle Upon Tyne, England theatre. It is based on the true story that took place in the Northern coal mining area of Ashington Colliers. A group of miners, proud to be hard worker socialists “pitmen” became noted throughout England for their paintings.

The miners, most of who had left school for work in the coal pits by the age of 11, had no background in art and none had ever been to a museum. They are accidentally introduced to art appreciation when a progressive-minded art teacher Robert Lyon (Paul Whitworth), through a scheduling error arrives to teach a class set up by the Workers Education Association. The inspired Paul Whitworth steals the show as the somewhat pretentious teacher who insists that art has no boundaries proving his point by encouraging them to paint subjects familiar to themselves. This they did with remarkable results, eventually exhibiting their work galleries in England gaining fame the name as the Ashton Group of Pitman Painters.

Art is where you find it and is without borders. In this play the art arises from coal mines where appreciation and creation of art transforms this diverse group of men into a cohesive unit although each has diverse physical and emotional traits. These traits are made distinctive by the pitch perfect acting of the entire cast that includes (alphabetically) James Carpenter, Jackson Davis, Dan Hiatt, Patrick Janes, Nicholas Pelczar, Marcia Pizzo, Kathryn Zdan and the fore mentioned Paul Whitworth.

Throughout the play Hall, through his cohesive Ashton Group emphasizes team effort, politics and social class distinction. He allows each to be hypercritical of the others works with candor that is often humorous, cutting but never divisive. When one is offered an opportunity to work in a real studio for the extraordinary sum of two pounds and 10 shillings a week, the offer is declined even though the group individually and collectively encourages him to accept the offer.

This cohesiveness and individual performances are fortified by projection designer Jim Gross’ beautifully projected images of their paintings. It completes the memorable acting and inspiring storyline that is rounded out by the entire cast singing a hopeful song to end the play.

Whereas Billy Elliot begins with the Maggie Thatcher era, this story takes place from the 1930s, through World War II until the late 50s when the mines were nationalized and Universal Health Service was established. It is ironic that those two cataclysmic events are hailed as a prelude step to a perfect socialistic state that we know was not to be from the facts Hall depicts in Billy Elliot.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of www.theatreworldinternetmagazine.com