Possibly the best play at the Dublin Theatre Festival, this year, was the National Theatre UK / Live Theatre Newcastle production of The Pitman Painters at the Gaiety Theatre. The matinee performance got a very spontaneous standing ovation and for me it was a wonderful entertaining and educational performance.
Written with great Geordie humour by Billy Elliot author, Lee Hall; it tells the story of a group of coal miners who were part of The Workers Educational Association set up to educate and stimulate workers in the early nineteen hundreds. This group took to painting with relish and went on to become the famous The Ashington Group. With patronage and encouragement, their story was told by Mass Observation, a socio-documentary movement and they were praised as a prime example of men’s self expression. The group numbered more than twenty but for dramatic clarity, Hall told the story of five miners (one actually a dental mechanic and another an unemployed youth).
Using three projection screens, this well-paced production managed to give a visual history of the work these men produced. There was also subtitles to help with the sometimes difficult Geordie accent.
There was great humanity in the characterisations; a rabid old style Marxist socialist, a fussy stickler for organisation and lots of rules and procedures, a down-to-earth type, an innocent hopeful young man, and one character who tells the story of his exploration of art and art theory. It is Hall’s wonderful skill that makes this difficult creative theme so interesting and at times humorous. You also get to meet snobbish but well meaning lady – a patron of the arts, an ambitious educationalist, who inspires the men and goes on to greater things.
Leaving the theatre, I got to wondering that there must have been art appreciation night classes in Waterford from about 1910 to 1940. Wouldn’t it be great if Waterford City Council or WIT took on such a project of discovery, leading to an exhibition.
Coincide that in the next few years, people will be trying to put together, perhaps Waterford Treasures, a looking at the private or Christmas pieces of Waterford Glass workers.