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Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2012, 12:47 p.m.

"The Pitmen Painters" delivers like a fine piece of art

  • Jason Marr in the foreground. Charles Leggett, R. Hamilton Wright, and Frank Lawler in the background.

    Photo by Chris Bennion

    Jason Marr in the foreground. Charles Leggett, R. Hamilton Wright, and Frank Lawler in the background.

If you are looking for thoughtful, provoking and, at times, very humorous theater with a message then you will enjoy “The Pitmen Painters” at ACT Theatre.

If you are an art lover, then your canvas will indeed be filled.

“The Pitmen Painters” offers wonderful observations about art, its meaning, its purpose and, ultimately for one man in particular, the powerful punch it can have on one's life.

The play, with great direction by Kurt Beattie and a stunning strong cast, is richly delivered and dripping with lyrical dialogue and blunt humor.

The story depicts a class struggle as well – class warfare as we like to call it these days – presented both with broad brushstrokes as well as in subtle hues.

“The Pitmen Painters” is a story about a group of Northern English coal miners – the Ashington Group – who enroll in an art appreciation class through the Worker's Education Association.

The story is based on true events as the class, led by an artist and instructor Robert Lyons, goes from a combative and frustrating start to an end point in which the students become rock stars in the British art world of the 1930s and 40s.

It's clear in this story – penned by playwright Lee Hall of “Billy Elliott” fame – that the miners are working class. What did that mean back then? Think leaving school at the age of 13 or 14, quitting your education to go deep underground digging for coal and not getting paid much at all.

Miners faced a treacherous job every day. So you now can imagine a conversation like this:
“Art is how it makes you feel.”
“What do you mean ‘feel?'”

Yes. It's meant to be funny but also poignant. Feelings that normal humans might have had to be put away, buried deep inside, for these men who traveled into hell every working day.

So during Lyons' classes, these feelings came out – onto canvas.

The paintings and other pieces – projected onto a screen periodically throughout the play – showed a brute force of talent, along with an odd Bedlington terrier or two. This talent turned the miners into celebrities.

So a success story? Not really. Nothing is that black and white.

Especially for the handsome and extra-talented Oliver Kilbourn, played authentically here by Jason Marr, whose first appearance at ACT marks, we hope, just the beginning.

For Oliver, a choice had to be made and choices, it would seem for the working class, always tend to involve sacrifice.

In the end, we don't get a very clear picture of really who these pitmen painters were. We are also left with a blurred sense of who Lyons was – an altruist or something else?

But like any fine work of art, the meanings that we take away from the “The Pitmen Painters,” is left to our own interpretations.

“The Pitmen Painters” performs through May 20, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle. Tickets start at $37.50. Call 206-292-7676 or online at ACT Theatre.
Story tags » Arts, Culture & EntertainmentTheater

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