Saturday, June 01, 2013

Beck’s THE PITMEN PAINTERS:  truth is often more meaningful then fiction

Have you looked at a painting and asked, “What does that mean?” What would the world be like without the arts?  Does art have to have meaning?  Does the learning of artistic technique thwart a painter’s discovery and creativity?  What happens when a group of uneducated, unsophisticated men are encouraged to let their emotions create their world?  These and many more questions are confronted in Lee Hall’s THE PITMEN PAINTERS, now on stage at Beck Center.

The play is loosely based on William Feaver’s book THE PITMEN PAINTERS:  THE ASHINGTON GROUP 1934-84, the tale of a group of miners in Northern England who in 1934 took an art appreciation class at the Workers Education Hall offered by Robert Lyon, an esoteric college professor, start experimenting with painting as they tried to figure out the “meaning” of art, and eventually became the darlings of the British art world.

The story showcases the power of individual expression, self respect, community pride, and collective spirit, while examining art, class and politics.

The play, which is written by the author of BILLY ELLIOT, ran to sellout audiences in London, before it was transferred to Broadway in 2010, with the original cast, for a very successful limited run.

The first act of the play sizzles with clowning, laughter, exposition, and growing artistic and personal awareness.  The well-developed individual personalities of the five miners, an amalgamation of the hundreds of workers who actually participated in the classes, was clearly spotlighted.  The insights and expansion of the world view of those who participated was clear. 

Unfortunately, the second act was flat, filled with debates, political flag-waving and an ending that may have worked in England as the population embraced socialism, but seemed corny, almost television sitcom.

One of the script’s highlights was a discussion of Van Gogh by the miners, as they grasp the influence of a person’s life, sufferings and joys, as a basis for expression.  The profound conclusion reached, “If art was easy it wouldn’t mean anything.”

The Beck production, under the focused eye of Sarah May, works as well as the script will allow.  Each of the individual cast members completely embraces his/her role, and the pacing of the overlong script, was fine.

Dana Hart is excellent as Robert Lyon, the art professor who grows from a befuddled frustrated purveyor of art theory, into a proud inspirer of emerging artists.  Pride spontaneously shows on his face as the students question, find answers, and grow.

Christopher Bohan, as the most artistically talented of the group, develops Oliver into an inspired man who is not only aware, but gifted in his creativity.  The scene where he explains why he can’t become a recipient of the offer of art patronage is a well developed speech that shows the community loyalty of the group.

Bob Boddard, as George, the union leader, Patrick Carroll, as the naïve Jimmy Floyd, Brett Radke, as the Young Lad who goes off to war, John Busser, as Harry the dentist, Mary Alice Beck as Helen, the wealthy art collector, Katie Nabors as Susan who is brought in by Lyon to be a nude model so the painters can expand their subject matter, and James Alexander Rankin, as a successful painter, each are excellent.

The projection designs by Ian Hinz enhance the visual allusions by displaying both the actual art work and the ever-changing settings.

Dialect coach Matthew Wright did an excellent job of modifying the heavy pronunciation of the Northumberland accent of the miners so there was little difficulty in understanding the dialogue.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The first act of THE PITMEN PAINTERS was filled with laughter and a marvelous series of lessons of art appreciation.  Unfortunately, the second act was flat, losing much of the awe of the subject matter.  The direction, acting, and technical aspects of the production make the staging worth seeing, in spite of the author losing his writing focus.

THE PITMEN PAINTERS is scheduled to run through JULY 7, 2013 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to