Geordies and Churchillians

The wonderful story of The Pitmen Painters is spoiled by Lee Hall’s insistent left-wing moralising

Theatre
The new "Billy Elliot"? Ian Kelly (centre) in "The Pitmen Painters"

As a child of the North East, I’m likely to get teary-eyed at certain things which make most metro-southerners sneer. These include: Alex Glasgow singing The Tyne Slides By, any reference to the Lindisfarne Christmas concerts and of course Lee Hall, whose musical Billy Elliot is the best piece of modern drama about the tension between community loyalties and meritocracy.

Topping Billy was a tall order but in terms of impact and admiration, Hall pulled it off again with The Pitmen Painters, a hit in Newcastle, London’s  National and Broadway, directed by Max Roberts of the North East’s perky Live Theatre. Rave reviews have finally brought it to the Duchess in the West End. 

The Ashington group were real-life autodidacts, who in the dreary days of the mid-Thirties caught the eye of a rather prissy art teacher Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), lured by the good works programme of the Workers’ Education Association.

The relationship starts badly, with Lyon trying to interest the group in looking at Titian and Michelangelo and then sounding surprised that they’ve never seen the great masters. This being pit-bound Northumberland, it would take a particularly dim toff to imagine anything different — and it’s the first sign of Hall bowing to class cliché. 

At the outset, the two worlds clash to droll effect. Both sides deploy language as a weapon — the pitmen use the defensiveness of Geordie deadpan responses to discomfit their teacher. Hall’s vernacular rarely falters: when Robert raves about his group’s first efforts at painting as “untutored art”, one of the men replies that this must be his fault, since he’s been tutoring them. 

Naive questions about what art is expose the tensions around abstraction, representation and value. The famously outsize Bedlington terrier painted by one of the group is drawn so dominantly, its creator says, because he made the dog too big by accident. A crouching miner in a seam has a shoulder that “looks like a horse’s leg”. The jovial patter about artistic frailties conceals the small miracle of a group of uneducated men producing work of quality which bridged gaps of wealth and circumstance.

Herein lies the problem of the play in its second half. Hall is so keen to lard the tale with a political significance that the thin seam cracks. 

Oliver Kilbourn (Trevor Fox) is a large lummox of a man — angular, uncomfortable and supremely gifted. He attracts the attention of a braying bohemian, Helen Sutherland (Joy Brook), who wants to save him from the mines and offers him full-time work as a painter. Oliver rejects the offer, only to regret it. The performance is heart-rending but somehow misdecisions always appear to be the fault of the patrons, not the painters.

In particular, their mentor comes off badly for profiting in career terms from his discovery of the group. But what’s so bad about an intellectual taking a real interest in the talents of the masses and why should he not derive advantage from it? 

Projected screen messages (an over-used device at the best of times) inform us that the colliery closed, the Labour Party abandoned common ownership in its retreat from Clause Four and Ashington never became a New Jerusalem for the working class. It’s such a daft grafting of modern left-wing gripes on to an uplifting story that it nearly made me cry — for all the wrong reasons.

When the invitation arrived to review Three Days in May at the Trafalgar Studios in London, an unconscionable attack of historical myopia made me assume this was a drama about the coalition negotiations of 2011. It turned out to be about something ever so slightly more important, featuring a different coalition.

The three days in question were between May 26 and 28, 1940, when Britain stood alone as Hitler’s forces cut a swathe across Europe.

Ben Brown’s spare treatment is set in the meetings of the five-strong war cabinet, forced by France’s impending defeat to consider using Mussolini to sue for peace and avoid invasion.

According to Churchill’s own memoirs, this was never an option — an “unreal, academic issue”. But it surely was one in the minds of Halifax and Chamberlain, and the drama explores the deliberations and politicking of the days that shaped Britain and Europe’s future.

In Alan Strachan’s production,  a rumpled Warren Clarke as the great man errs on the side of caricature, a less lovable rendition than Timothy Spall in The King’s Speech, but intense, emotional and credible. Halifax (Jeremy Clyde) is a smooth British brahmin, representative of realpolitik against gut instinct. 

Alas, I didn’t think much of the writing, which seems to rely on American tourists being impressed by lines like: “We are in the tightest corner since 1066.” There’s one priceless moment when an uncomprehending Halifax frets about how the women and children will fare if Churchill gets his way and Britain fights to the last bullet. “They’ll use kitchen knives or something like that,” raps the PM.

It’s not helped by a lack of tension — we know that Halifax won’t get his way — but it never feels as if this was really an option anyway. Jock Colville (James Alper) is the dapper aide chirpily recording events and pouring a lot of whisky while Europe trembles. If the historical drama fails to fascinate, the focus on choices about what sort of Europe we want to live in, and the shaky borderline between the feasible and the desirable, are as pertinent as ever. It’s just that we lack a Churchill to ensure that, in the end, it comes out right.