Lee Hall is best known for writing both the screen and musical versions of Billy Elliott. His latest play, The Pitmen Painters, comes with wildy positive reviews and sold out pretty much overnight in its Cottseloe run last year, so it's got a lot to live up to now it's returned to the larger Lyttelton. Fortunately, it doesn't disappoint.
Once again Hall tells the story of a mining community and the people there who find a release through artistic expression. But this is based on a true story, of the Ashington Group: Coal miners in the 1930s who had weekly lectures in the name of self-improvement. Failing to get hold of an economics lecturer as planned, they fall back on Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly,) an art appreciation teacher who suggests they create their own paintings as a way of approaching the subject. The group ended up becoming a minor sensation in the art world. The play's very funny, especially in the first half, and the characters quickly establish themselves and become likeable. The second act's a bit more poignant but still effective, tracking the ways their newfound talent changed the men's lives, and also the ways in which it didn't.
Although there's an unmistakeable political slant to Hall's writing, with a very specific dig at Tony Blair's betrayal of the Labour Party's ideals at the end, this isn't the main thrust of his argument. Mainly, he's angry with the general feeling that working-class people need culture or education to be dumbed down for them. It's not just that the pitmen aren't stupid, they're not uneducated either - although they undoubtedly lack anything resembling a rounded education, mostly having left school by the age of 12 at the latest, on the subjects that (either by choice or by accident) they have studied, they're pretty much experts. Although this is often shown through comedy, with the miners incongruously coming up with highly specific knowledge that contradicts their appearance, the meaning remains clear.
The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall is booking until the 14th of April at the National Theatre's Lyttleton Stage.