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Art, and artists, mined from an unsuspected vein

Submitted by on Sep 27, 2011 – 2:13 pm

Review: “The Pitmen Painters” by Lee Hall, at TimeLine Theatre through Dec. 18 ****

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Dan Waller as miner-turned-artist in "The Pitmen Painters" at TimeLine Theatre (Lara Goetsch)

Speaking to Chicago arts journalists recently, the celebrated soprano Renée Fleming ventured into the mystery of artistic talent and how it can lurk under the radar, potentially wondrous though undiscovered. No doubt people with enormous, untapped vocal talent “are working in pizzerias,” Fleming said, “and have no idea they could be the next Luciano Pavarotti.”

Just such an out-of-nowhere burst of creative genius actually surfaced in the 1930s and ‘40s, among a group of miners in northern England whose paintings rocked the art world. Their remarkable story inspired Lee Hall’s 2008 play “The Pitmen Painters,” which now brushes its charm and wisdom over stage and walls at TimeLine Theatre.

The Northumberland miners – or the Ashington Group, as they came to be called – made their improbable leap quite by chance. About 30 of them signed up for an art appreciation course under an educational program that provided low-cost study of any subject not intended as job training. But when their instructor got off on the wrong foot by plunging into a lecture on formal elements in Renaissance painting, the pitmen complained that they weren’t interested in academic particulars: They wanted to know about art. How do you know what a painting means?

So the instructor, Robert Lyon, hit upon the idea of having the miners get inside art by making it. He began giving them painting assignments, to their astonishment at first — and then to his. In short order, the miners’ imaginative work was attracting collectors; they were even invited to mount an exhibition. Fame, and with it a new life, beckoned to a few. Hall’s play offers an intimate, wise and funny take on their story, and TimeLine’s witty, uncluttered production, directed by BJ Jones, goes straight to the spiritual core of art.

“The Pitmen Painters” is not only about unlocking genius but also about the first principle of artistic creativity: the freeing of imagination, the discovery of self. The play is filled with wonderful, earthy, honest characters whose voyage of discovery is limned here with humor, sensitivity and conviction. Even as they unleash their inner Rembrandts, these miners call their mutual criticism as they see it. They are pals, and their stunning candor is infectious.

It is Dan Waller’s serious, deeply insightful Oliver Kilbourn who quickly emerges as the most promising painter in the group. But Kilbourn’s brilliance also thrusts him into a personal crisis as opportunity opens up that could catapult this lifetime miner into an alluring new world. Waller’s portrait of that struggle, profoundly honest in its conflict, is a masterpiece in itself.

Yet Waller’s performance is closely rivaled by Steven Pringle’s droll turn as Jimmy Floyd, charming in his plain-spoken manner even if he’s not the most artistically gifted of the gang. When general consternation greets a pretty young girl brought in to pose nude, and some of these proper lads insist that she keep her clothes on, a beaming Jimmy urges his companions not to reject the notion too hastily.

Opposite the expansive, open-minded Jimmy is William Dick’s sober, circumspect George Brown, chairman of the educational program, collector of fees, minder of rules and regulations. But Dick’s frequently exasperated George is also at bottom a good fellow who just wants to learn about art. You share his mortification when the model airily observes that taking off her clothes is no big deal.

As the instructor, Andrew Carter follows a nice, smart curve from stuffy, oblivious classical lecturer to genuine teacher with an inspired idea for accomplishing what the guys want. Loretta Rezos makes the best of the play’s least compelling character, a wealthy art collector who also seems to collect artists.

Timothy Mann’s spare set neatly invokes the working class milieu, and projections of the miners’ artworks allow us to see their talent emerging and maturing. Indeed, to appreciate it.

Related Link:

Photo caption and credit: Dan Waller as miner-turned-artist in “The Pitmen Painters” at TimeLine Theatre (Lara Goetsch)   Below: YouTube interview with Lee Hall, the playwright, who also wrote the book and lyrics for the musical “Billy Elliot.”

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