Christopher Connel, Brian Lonsdale,
Deka Walmsley, Michael Hodgson,
and David Whitaker in
The Pitmen Painters
(© Joan Marcus)
Christopher Connel, Brian Lonsdale,
Deka Walmsley, Michael Hodgson,
and David Whitaker in
The Pitmen Painters
(© Joan Marcus)
What do Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters -- now getting its American premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre -- have in common? Both are about England's once mine-dotted north and both are penned by Lee Hall, who was raised there and who has written another exciting tribute to a working-class area that was troubled then and now no longer exists.

Under Max Roberts' alternately gritty and glossy direction, and featuring the entire original cast from London's National Theatre, this transAtlantic export is already a front-runner for this year's Tony Award for Best Play.

Much like Billy Elliot as well -- in which an entire village gets behind one young boy's ambition to be a ballet dancer -- The Pitman Painters involves the artistic realizations of five local men who initially think they've merely signed up for a 1934 art appreciation class sponsored by their ambitious Workers Educational Association in a YMCA hall (designed convincingly by Gary McCann).

It's where visiting instructor Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), a highbrow college professor, begins showing slides of Renaissance masters to miners Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel), George Brown (Deka Walmsley), Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker), dental assistant Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson) and an on-the-dole young lad (Brian Lonsdale).

Meeting totally blank responses at his first lecture, he soon realizes the men (representing many more original participants) have no way of relating to art's place in understanding individual experience and the emotions. Thinking to engage them more immediately, he suggests they start etching and painting. As they pitch in --reluctantly at first -- they wake up to the power of art for interpreting their own attitudes toward lives lived in and around the mines.

Traveling to Edinburgh and London to broaden their art horizons, they become enthusiastic advocates, and show off their confidence and knowledge in a first act finale where they address the audience -- as if talking to their contemporaries -- about what the arts contribute to a culture: a message that is still extremely meaningful today. More than that, as they continue painting, they accumulate a body of work that brings them recognition in the greater English art world and the opportunity to see their canvasses fetch good prices and land on museum walls.

Their march towards success is aided by art-loving shipping-line heiress Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson), whose important acquaintances include Henry Moore and abstractionist Ben Nicholson (whom Lonsdale impersonates in a brief but deliciously subtle comedy turn). Helen takes a particular liking towards Oliver -- if not necessarily his artwork -- which accounts for a substantial amount of drama in the show's second act.

Much of the production's success belongs to the eight-member acting contingent -- which also includes Lisa McGrillis as a model whose readiness to shed her clothes stirs comic anxiety among the daubers -- who have performed Hall's stunning piece enough to get every savory detail of the men's illustrious progress, and make a story that could feel very distant hit completely close to home.