Although in reality the Ashington Group involved upwards of 30 Pitmen, for the purposes of this play the group is represented by 5 men. Robert Lyon (Louis Hilyer) as an art lecturer, is so far removed from their experience as miners, that he struggles to find a starting point for discussion when none of the group has seen a real painting or visited a gallery. He soon gets the members of the group to produce their own pieces of art which they bring to the class each week for discussion. The confusion which arises from the group’s broad Northumberland dialect and Robert Lyon’s cultured tones provides much humour and the sharp witted banter between the miners and the union official is very entertaining. The group becomes successful and attracts the interest of the Tate and the British Museum.
The crux of the play comes when Oliver Kilbourn (played by Philip Correia) is offered the patronage of Helen Sutherland. She offers to support him financially so that he will be ‘his own man’, free to paint without the constraints of working down the pit. However Kilbourn realises that his paintings are rooted in his life as a miner and that if he accepts Helen Sutherland’s patronage, he loses the very essence that makes his paintings different to others with a more romantic view of a miner’s life. He refuses her patronage, remains a miner and consequently I think retains the integrity she would have perhaps compromised.
The Pitmen Painters is really entertaining. It’s funny, makes you think about class, education and politics and you learn a lot about the Ashington Group without really trying.