Anyone who saw TimeLine Theatre’s smash hit The History Boys will experience a slight sense of deja vu in watching The Pitmen Painters, the company’s new show at its home space. (TimeLine’s excellent A Walk in the Woods continues at Theatre Wit.) Like its predecessor, Lee Hall’s play places British class conflict within the confines of a classroom. This approach allows a playwright to distill the many strains of inter-class interaction into a single potent mouthful, the better to demonstrate the system’s distorting effect on everyone compelled to participate in it. It’s an effective device, no doubt about it, but one that could quickly become over-familiar. Fortunately, under BJ Jones’s strong direction, The Pitmen Painters feels fresh as well as powerful, with any History Boys echoes serving only to make this play’s truths ring louder.
The play, based on a true story, follows a group of coal-mine employees in Northumberland during the Depression whose Workmen’s Education Association art class turns into a lifelong creative project, and into a national sensation. The play explores not only the development of the miners’ self-confidence and sensibility but the growing tension between them and their art teacher, a young painter of posh background whose own career has stalled. Mr. Lyon (Andrew Carter, as ably conflicted here as when he portrayed David Frost in TimeLine’s Frost/Nixon) genuinely has the best interests of this group of talented amateurs at heart, but he can’t seem to avoid condescending to them, as when he describes their work as an example of what “the masses” can do. Nor can he resist taking advantage of them, using his documentation of their achievements to sustain the rest of his career.
So though on the surface the play suggests a simple inspirational story, underneath there’s a thick seam of class distinctions, and beneath that the bedrock question of authority. Who’s responsible for artistic work? Who owns it? Who is entitled to tell its story, or the story of the people who made it? As the play is based on the dissertation the real Lyon actually wrote, it’s hard to wish he hadn’t been so free in discussing the men’s work as though it were his own. At the same time, any temptation the audience might feel to regard Lyon as carrying the London Man’s Burden and lifting up the wretched of the earth is closed off by each miner’s strong individual artistic and moral stance. Particularly in his focus on Oliver Kilbourn (the excellent Dan Waller), the most capable of the students, playwright Hall compels us to see the integrity required to blossom from diffident cap-in-hand dabbler to an artist self-confident enough to refuse patronage. Even the largely comic-relief role of Harry Wilson (James Houton), who quotes Karl Marx in and out of season, eventually serves to highlight the power of the miners’ collective efforts. These men derive their strength from one another and from themselves, not from the upper-crust tourists who come to gawk at them and their work as if visiting the zoo.
Mike Tutaj’s projections, which so enhance A Walk in the Woods, are likewise essential here, enabling the audience to engage with the men’s work as intimately as they do themselves. There are moments when this engagement seems almost Monty Python-esque, as when one miner accuses another of “mere bourgeois formalism;” but, as with most TimeLine work, whatever is comic serves mostly to underline serious ideas. You’ll walk away from the show thinking about things that hadn’t occurred to you before, including the life of the English coal-miner (as starkly laid out in Diana Spoerl’s lobby display of enlarged black-and-white photos from inside the Ashington Coal Mine) and the multiple roles that art plays in people’s lives—and that people play in each other’s lives.
You’ll also leave thinking—again—about the role of education in the British class struggle. While The Pitmen Painters is a classic TimeLine show in the best sense—thoughtful, history-based and smart—the company might now consider leaving that particular subject alone before the phrase “a classic TimeLine show” comes to be a stereotype instead of an accolade.