I’ve just spent a wonderful weekend in Manchester, visiting my friend, Megan. We planned a quiet time of mostly nothing, but it didn’t quite turn out like that. I sprained my ankle on Wednesday, but we still managed to walk two dogs (Megan has recently signed up to BorrowMyDoggy), cook lots of Chinese food, eat an amazing roast, and see a play.
Megan wanted to go to Oldham Coliseum to see The Pitmen Painters, for its opening night on Friday. I had heard of it, probably because it was staged in London in 2011, but I knew nothing about it, except that it was about miners, and I didn’t want to spoil myself by reading too much about it, so I read a sentence about it and said “yes ok”. I was expecting a rather worthy, depressing play, probably about workers’ rights and exploitation and the horrors of mining, but I was completely wrong.
Set in the 1930s and 1940s, north of Newcastle, it tells the true story of The Ashington Group, a group of men – mostly miners – who, as the Ashington branch of the Workers’ Education Association, hired a teacher for a course on art appreciation, who realises that the best way to teach this to them would be to get them to create art themselves. The group went on to become celebrated artists, and their art can be seen at Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Northumberland.
I loved it. As well as telling me an important story, it was funny, uplifting, hopeful and enlightening. I felt like unimaginative for thinking that it reminded me of Billy Elliot – just because it’s set near Newcastle and it’s about miners and art doesn’t mean it’s the same – but it turns out that Lee Hall wrote both, so that’s a valid comparison. I really liked how workers’ rights, community, popular politics, friendship, miners’ values and discussion of socialism were worked into the story, without being worthy and clunky. It also, importantly, portrays the upper classes realistically, including their often patronising attempts at helping and understanding the working classes, without demonising them, so that the play embraces everyone, in solidarity not opposition. And the ending made me cry.
I loved, too, the production that Oldham have put on. The set design was clever, evoking various settings, and using projection to better portray the art discussed and produced by the group, which I thought was really clever, and the cast was brilliant. I’m annoyed that it’s not practical for me to see more there – Our Gracie, about Gracie Fields, looks amazing – but I hope I’ll be able to catch some more in the future.
The Pitmen Painters runs at Oldham Coliseum until 27th February 2016.