Acclaimed Pitmen Painters Makes Its Last Brush Stroke on Broadway Dec. 12

By Kenneth Jones
12 Dec 2010

Brian Lonsdale, Deka Walmsley and Michael Hodgson
Brian Lonsdale, Deka Walmsley and Michael Hodgson
Photo by Joan Marcus

Tony Award winner Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters, his acclaimed play about British miners who became celebrated artists in the 1930s and '40s, ends its limited engagement at Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway home, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, on Dec. 12.

The play officially opened on Broadway — with its original U.K. cast — Sept. 30. MTC, by special arrangement with Bob Boyett, produces the Live Theatre Newcastle/National Theatre of Great Britain's co-production. Previews began Sept. 14. 

Inspired by a book by William Feaver, and embraced by many London and New York critics, the play tells the story of the Ashington Group — miners from Northumberland who became celebrated artists. The five men in the play are a theatrical representation of more than 30 members of the group. The characters also include a "dental mechanic" and an unemployed fellow, who are technically not miners. 

Max Roberts (artistic director and founding member of Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne) again directs the original company. The cast members, who premiered at Live Theatre in 2007, include Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly, Brian Lonsdale, Lisa McGrillis (as an artists' model), Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker and Phillippa Wilson (as a rich art lover). They appear with the permission of Actors' Equity Association. The company also includes Jack Koenig, Trevor Fox and Christa Scott-Reed.



The Pitmen Painters was named Best Play at the 2008 Evening Standard Awards. Hall won the Best Book Tony Award for penning Billy Elliot The Musical, based on his screenplay.

"It's a piece of lost social history," Hall told Playbill.com, talking about finding Feaver's book in a bookstore. "It was about this group of miners where I'm from in the Northeast of England, who became really accomplished and famous painters of their day. I got in a cab, and I started reading this thing, and, before I finished the first chapter, I rang [director] Max [Roberts], who is a long-term collaborator. I owed him a play, and I said, 'I'm going to cancel the play I was going to write for you because I found this fantastic story.'"

Here's how MTC characterizes the new play: "The Pitmen Painters is a humorous, deeply moving and timely look at art, class, and politics. In 1934, a group of Ashington miners hired a professor to teach an art appreciation evening class. Rapidly abandoning theory in favor of practice, the pitmen began to paint. Within a few years the most avant-garde artists became their friends and their work was acquired by prestigious collections; but every day they worked, as before, down the mine."

The production features scenic and costume design by Gary McCann, lighting design by Douglas Kuhrt and sound design by Martin Hodgson.

Projections of actual Pitmen paintings punctuate the production, prompting "ooohs" and "aaahs" from the audience. The "untutored" art is surprisingly evocative.

Director Roberts told Playbill.com, "I'd actually been to the museum where some of the paintings were being displayed in the Northeast of England. You know, you often buy a book when you go to an exhibition, and you look at the pictures, and you don't quite read it, and then you just put it on your shelf, so when [Lee Hall] rang me from the cab, [I said,] 'Oh, yeah. I've got that. I've seen the paintings.' And I actually pulled it off the shelf, and I read it straightaway and shared Lee's passion that this could indeed be a play."

The two-act play takes place in Ashington, Northumberland, Newcastle Upon Tyne, London and Edinburgh between 1934 and 1947.

Playwright Hall was born in 1966 in Newcastle upon Tyne and was educated at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. His best known screenwriting credit is "Billy Elliot," which received BIFA Award for Best Screenplay; two BAFTA nominations for Best Newcomer and Best Screenplay; and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Billy Elliot The Musical (Victoria Palace Theatre, Broadway and Sydney), with music by Elton John, received the 2005 Evening Standard Award for Best Musical and nine Olivier Award nominations, winning five including Best New Musical. It won the Tony Award as Best Musical. Hall's playwriting credits include Spoonface Steinberg at the Ambassadors; Cooking With Elvis, which had its premiere at Live Theatre then toured to Edinburgh, transferred to the West End, toured nationally and was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Comedy; adaptations including The Barber of Seville (Bristol Old Vic), The Good Hope (National), Pinocchio (Lyric Hammersmith), Mother Courage (Shared Experience), Servant to Two Masters (RSC/Young Vic), Mr. Puntila and his Man Matti (Almeida/Right Size) and Leonce and Lena (Gate Theatre). Hall is currently working on a play for the National Theatre, a new musical with Elton John, The Wall – the Musical with Roger Waters and a film about the director Douglas Sirk for Paramount.

Tickets for the production are on sale by visiting Telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200. The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is at 261 West 47th Street. For more information, visit www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com.

Watch highlights from the show: