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The Pitmen Painters review at New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme – ‘superb performances, dull staging’

The cast of The Pitmen Painters at New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes The cast of The Pitmen Painters at New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes
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The Ashington Group, a real-life art collective made up of hardened Northumbrian coalminers, achieved a great deal in its relatively short existence.

The organisation’s rise and rise, from its modest beginnings in a YMCA meeting room in a corner of north east England to worldwide recognition, is the basis of Lee Hall’s play, first staged at Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne in 2007, to great acclaim, before transferring to the National Theatre.

This new production of The Pitmen Painters begins promisingly enough. A group of five miners gather together, eager to learn about the world of art under the guidance of upper-crust expert Robert Lyon. The dialogue is amusing as the characters set about discovering this hitherto hidden world. But over time it starts to become tiresome.

That’s not the fault of the cast. The performances are strong and Lyon is played with great charm by Roger May. But Gwenda Hughes’ staging is dull and doesn’t allow the men’s artistic progression to be seen to its full effect. This is particularly surprising given the New Vic’s deserved reputation for ingenuity in staging in-the-round.

Almost every scene contains overlong sequences of the painters setting out their chairs before repeatedly arguing the same points about the purpose of art. A trip to the art galleries in London, their own exhibitions and the loss of the group’s youngest member during the war are given only cursory references and the production as a whole is lacking in power.

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Superbly acted but over-stretched revival of Lee Hall’s play