Pitmen Painters: beautiful, flawless and politically sharp

Mary MacDonald (Helen Sutherland) and Rod Wilkinson (George Brown)
Mary MacDonald (Helen Sutherland) and Rod Wilkinson (George Brown)

The Pitmen Painters
Loft Theatre, Leamington
Until June 6

Working class heroes have a special place in our affection. All that muscle, wit and grit. But that’s an affectation, similar to that which we give to fallen heroes. Neither pay very much heed to the political contexts of their struggles.

The Pitmen Painters is a play of arguments. The real pitmen painters were a group of amateur artists who came to be known as the Ashington Group, Geordie miners who in the 1930s and 40s had a hunger for learning and fed it through the old Workers’ Educational Association. Encouraged by their tutor Robert Lyon (Andrew Cullum) they learned to paint. Some of them showed an outstanding talent, which gradually came to the attention of the established art world. This was a time when art and socialism believed they could find in each other meaning, when the question, “what is art?” had a role to play in the class struggle.

Inevitably, perhaps, the establishment had its way, and the members of the Ashington Group were taken up and then dropped as tastes changed.

But they themselves remained true to their vision: which is more than can be said for the political parties they espoused.

We’ve lost that sense of urgency now, surrendered it to an industry of self-enhancement. This beautiful, flawless production tells a powerful story of the men who made their mark. Almost every line contains something to think about. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving.

The Loft has delivered some gems in its time, but this is a pure diamond. Go and see it.

Nick Le Mesurier