Friday, October 01, 2010
**1/2 (out of ****)
The slogan "All for one and one for all" may have originated with the Three Musketeers. But it could just as easily have been derived from The Pitmen Painters -- an actual team of English coal miners-cum-artists from Newcastle -- who define the word selfless as they eschew personal gain for the overarching cohesion of their group.
Playwright Lee Hall mines familiar territory he first broached through his triumph in Billy Elliot by centering on the democratization of the arts. In The Pitmen Painters, Lee once again marks a collision of working class coal miners with the revelation that art is not solely the bastion of the affluent. As in Billy Elliot, the potential empowerment and liberation offered by artistic expression is often at odds with a deeply ingrained and dogmatic Socialistic philosophy espoused among these workers.
While often riveting, humorous and particularly stimulating during the superb and far superior first act, the play becomes increasingly didactic during the more muddled second.
Set in the 1930s, The Pitmen Painters -- Oliver Kilbourne (an excellent Christopher Connell), Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), Young Lad (Brian Lonsdale), George Brown (Deka Walmsley) and Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker) -- are coal miners determined to become better enlightened as a unit. They've selected art appreciation as their collective means of further enriching their lives. Together, they tap the knowledge of teacher Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), who quickly dispenses with his birds-eye view of Renaissance art history in favor of challenging these men to put their own paint brushes to canvas.
Much to Robert's surprise and delight, his painters place enormous thought and care into their individual works, demonstrating a real knack for it. As a team, they critique each other's assignments and argue over whether art is in the eye of the beholder or the artist himself. Near the end of act one as the five men are eagerly learning more as they view renowned paintings, they together reach their epiphany that art is meant to be viewed with each other to be fully appreciated. Think "art as a democracy."
As the first act concluded, I was in complete awe of Lee's own work, Max Roberts' stunning direction and his exceptional ensemble. Even more so, I was struck by the penetrating implication that as an audience member, I was sharing this truly communal experience with a theatre full of strangers of all races, colors, creeds and lots in life as we watched The Pitmen Painters together.
Such would have been a perfect place for the show to end -- especially given the far less satisfying second act. Lee should have quit while he was ahead.
Inspired with the accumulated potential among his pupils, Robert enlists Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson), a wealthy patron of the arts, to view the paintings. So impressed is Helen with Oliver's promising talent that she offers to pay him a weekly stipend to further develop his skills as a true artist. Oliver is faced with a dilemma of whether to pursue this opportunity of a lifetime or decline for the the good of the group.
I won't divulge what transpires. But allow me to say that whether intentionally or not, Lee's second act seems to imply that Socialist ideals of worker cooperation can come at the expense of artistic expression and individuality -- or does it?
Given how Lee's Billy Elliot celebrated the latter, his own conclusion in The Pitmen Painters is conflicted, if not a bit confounding. Is Lee celebrating Socialism or warning of its perils? It's far from clear.
But like works of art that challenge precepts and convention, this mostly entertaining work certainly makes one think and appreciate, regardless of socio-economic status.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
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