Tuesday, 3 February 2009


30/1/09, National (Lyttelton).

Very good. Thankfully lived up to expectations, having been exceedingly well reviewed on its original appearance in the Cottesloe last year. It's a transfer with the original cast, none of whom I'd heard of, from Live Theatre in Newcastle which commissioned the play from Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall.

The true story of the Durham miners from Ashington who came together for art appreciation classes under the auspices of the Workers' Educational Association in the 1930s; were lucky enough to have as their tutor Robert Lyon, who later became principal of Edinburgh College of Art, and decided they should "learn by doing"; and who turned out to have real talent, continuing to paint long after Lyon had moved on (the last one died in the 1990s).

They meet in a hut, display their work on easels, comment and criticise. We see the pictures projected onto screens hanging in front of the back wall -- not only their pictures, but other work with which they come into contact as their fame starts to spread and they're picked up by the cognoscenti, taken on a trip to London (Lyon travelling first class, the rest of them third) and encounter the work of people like Ben Nicholson and an exhibition of Chinese painting.

It started strongly: one reviewer complained there were too many easy jokes, but I'm a sucker for easy jokes. The comedy was rooted partly in class distinctions: Lyon's middle class values, the miners' Geordie dialect, both baffling to the other. It partly sprang from character: the organiser of the class is a petty rulebook bureaucrat. It partly came from politics: one young lad is unemployed and the organiser tries to exclude him on the grounds that the class is run by the Workers' Educational Association, and he's not a worker; the token Marxist insists he stay, arguing it's not his fault he's a victim of capitalism's cyclical nature - that got a big laugh from an audience staring down the barrel of the credit crunch.

The more thoughtful second half was punctuated by seasonal fusillades of coughing during the quieter scenes, which was a shame. The play asks what it means to be "an artist": one of the most talented of the group, Oliver Kilbourn, is offered the chance to escape the pit and become a full-time painter by a local Lady Bountiful; he eventually declines, because (I take it) accepting would mean cutting himself off from his subjects and his community, the source of his inspiration.

There's a nice scene when the group visits the exhibition of Chinese paintings. The miners are knocked out. Then the toffs, including Lyon, arrive; they are dismissive - they think it's formulaic, derivative. But by now the miners are confident of their own judgement. To Lyon's surprise they stick to their guns, arguing forcefully that this is folk art, just as what they do themselves is folk art.

Upstairs in the Lyttelton foyer they'd mounted an exhibition of the group's work, almost all (it turned out) by Kilbourn, though there were one or two by James Floyd, a truly naive painter who produced spectacularly colourful pictures of whippets and allotments and the other paraphernalia of life in a mining village, and a few by Harry Wilson.
Kilbourn's early stuff is reminiscent of Sickert. His paintings of life down the pit play with light and shadow, like his wartime paintings of blackouts and "dimouts". His later painting, full of sturdy figures who might have come out of a Stanley Spencer, include sequences devoted to women's work including washday. He seemed to my untutored eye a genuine talent, whose work is also a personal record of a vanished world. One of his paintings is below.

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