The Pitmen Painters – Therry Theatre

The Pitmen Painters – Therry Theatre

It’s rare that a production of a play transcends a lacklustre
script, but Geoff Brittain, a charismatic cast, and a tremendously talented
group of designers from Therry Theatre have managed to do just that with The
Pitmen Painters.

Integrating stunning visuals, an unforgettable set conceptualised
by the unforgettable Ole Wiebkin, costuming almost too beautiful for purpose,
captivating lighting, subtle sound, and compelling performances, Brittain and
Therry have made a rather boresome story into a truly enchanting theatrical event.

The story. It’s the 1930s, three miners, a dental mechanic,
and an unemployed ‘Young Lad,’ learn to paint as part of an adult education
program through the Worker’s Education Association in Newcastle, UK. Their
teacher, the evidently educated urbanite Robert Lyon introduces them to a
vacuous, if surprisingly kind (or is it just profligacy?), wealthy art
collector, Helen Sutherland, one of her gregarious stipendiaries, Ben
Nicholson, and an aspiring art model, Susan Parks, the humility and character
of the working-class men ultimately outclassing their educated, upper-class

There’s not much by way of story here. It’s a message driven
play, and the message is driven, re-driven and driven home again for good luck.
There is humour, though (you might even say an alienating abundance of it) but
the writing is almost obscenely repetitive – Hall could seriously benefit from the
help of a confident editor – as well as fairly dull. He could have accomplished
his stridently socialist exploration of class and the depth of human emotion among
working people in the time it took him to repeat his paraenesis several times in
the first act alone. Not to say his message is a bad one, but a bit of
concision and subtlety would help, not hinder, its conveyance, and probably leave
audiences feeling a bit more energised rather than enervated. OK, we’ve got
it already. Where’s the story?

Fortunately, this production is much better than its circular
script would read on its own (how many times do we need to see the men
critique each other’s work while cracking wise?
), in part due to awesome
aesthetics, in part due to clever direction, and in part due to some
particularly charming performances.

The use of multiple projections allows the audience to see
the art as it’s introduced into the story so that one is always visually
engaged. Some deft use of colour in the lighting between scenes and in
combination with clever blocking at times throughout made for visually
arresting, painting-like images, even when the moving, artful backdrop fell
away into darkness. And the acting helped turn this pretty, but potentially pretty
boring play, into a winner.

Jack Robins plays Oliver Kilbourn, the lifelong pitman, and
most talented of the painters. He conveys sincerity, depth of feeling, and vulnerability
that make his character real and empathetic. Kilbourne is strangely written,
though well-played by Robins. He’s both a creative genius, with profound,
intelligent things to say, and then a fool who suddenly doesn’t know the meaning
of ‘allegory.’ One moment he’s humbled by Lyon’s majestic work, the next he’s a
snobby critic of the kind lambasted in the early parts of the play, calling
Lyon’s work ‘facile.’ With grace, Robins delivers a monologue at one point in
the play which reverberates in my mind even now – “And when I stopped to
look at what I’d done, suddenly I realised it was light – it was morning – time
for work … And I was shaking – literally shaking – ‘cos for the first time in
me life I’d really achieved something …” It might sound maudlin on the
page, but Robins delivers it without pretension, making it truly arresting.

Andrew Horwood plays dental mechanic Harry Wilson. His
character is written with a serious obsession for Marxism, which is constantly
repeated, and which could have become tiresome if his exhortations were made by
a lesser actor. Fortunately, Horwood is more than adequately talented to turn
his character into one you want to watch, rather than watch leave the stage. He
has fantastic comedic timing and expressiveness, and manages to turn a bit of a
stereotype into something both far more real and far more engaging.

Chris Leech is the urbane Robert Lyon, art teacher to the all-male,
blue-collar WEA group. His performance is perfectly convincing, even if his
accent slips from time to time. His portrayal incorporates both intelligence
and a charming level of stuttering indecisiveness – something of a Novocastrian
Hugh Grant.

Sam Wiseman gives an extraordinary debut performance as miner/unionist
George Brown. He’s a droll, dramatic, commanding presence on stage, with easily
the best accent of any of the actors (does he have a homefield advantage,

Adam Schultz plays another miner, Jimmy Floyd. Jimmy’s a bit
of a dolt, and Shultz conveys his simplicity convincingly and with great
humour, adding value to every scene he’s in. There is a bit of unnecessary
blocking with Schultz getting out of his chair and into people’s faces almost
every time he spoke, before returning to the same seat he’d just left, but this
may just be because of how funny Schultz is in those ‘too close for comfort’ sort
of interactions.

Liam James plays the ‘Young Lad’ in another fine main stage
acting debut. Though he has comparatively little to say, James is on stage for
the majority of the show, and does a great job of keeping busy without causing a
distraction. His is another convincing performance. Notwithstanding a bit of a
shaky accent, exacerbated by Hall’s provincial vernacular, James creates a
character you could really believe lived through the thirties and into the

Nick Mitchell sashays onto stage to give a brief but electric
performance as the flamboyant painter Ben Nicholson. A job so well done; you
want to see him more.

The snooty simple-minded affluent socialite Helen Sutherland
is played by Anita Canala. Sutherland is one of only two females in a male-dominated
play, and unfortunately, she’s written to be really quite dim-witted and
shallow, with Susan Parks, the other female, faring no better. The writing can
be seen as misogynistic, however, Hall’s primary target is classicism and the
socio-educational ‘establishment,’ so it’s most likely an unfortunate collateral
by-product of attacking his primary target. Fortunately, Canala is a talented
actress who manages to bring more out of her casually written character than a
less experienced performer could with that material to work from.

Then to Susan Parks, played by Veronika Wlodarczyk. Again,
this is a man’s play. Parks has little to contribute to the story, other than a
bit of added ribaldry. Wlodarczyk’s performance, however, again, transcends
mediocre, misogynistic writing, and complements the capable on-stage cast.

Therry’s production of The Pitmen Painters is beautiful,
well performed, and well directed.

Go in anticipating pulchritude, if not profundity, and you will
not be disappointed.



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