Theatre Aquarius continues to impress this season with the Canadian premiere of Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters. Hall, who also penned Billy Elliot, brings us another tale of North East England working class folk finding beauty in their humdrum existence through creativity.
The Pitmen Painters is based on the real life story of the Ashington Group, a crew of miners and a few other townsfolk who take an art appreciation course from artist and tutor Robert Lyon (played by Jonathan Watton), beginning in 1934. Lyon soon realizes that the best way to teach these men about art is to have them create some themselves. What follows is a thoughtful and quite often funny script that questions what art actually is and who has the talent or indeed the right to create it. The Ashington Group did become celebrated in the British art scene of the 1930s and 1940s, showing their work at several exhibitions during that time.
The best parts in Lee Hall's play come in the ensemble moments when all five students are in class with their instructor. The men discuss their paintings' merits or faults and finally come to realize that a piece of art quite often says more about the observer than the artist. The opening night audience at Hamilton's Theatre Aquarius burst into spontaneous applause after several of these quick, fun scenes, paced well by director Ron Ulrich.
Sadly, the second act of The Pitmen Painters brings war, death and disillusionment. Oliver Kilbourn, one of the miners with a true talent for painting, has been offered a weekly allowance to paint by a wealthy benefactor (played by a crisp yet warm Sharry Flett). Oliver (Michael Spencer Davis) declines the offer due to his fears and undoubtedly regrets doing so by the end of the play. Unfortunately for Oliver and also for most of us, second chances don't come around that often in life. The message here is to grab an opportunity while you have the chance, whether you are ready or not. Living a life of regret is a terrible way to exist.
Visually, this show is stunning. The actual art of the Ashington Group is projected on screens above the actors' heads, inviting the audience to join the art appreciation class and helping to draw out of us what all art eventually should - emotion.
The Pitmen Painters runs at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton until February 25.
Tickets online at theatreaquarius.org or by phone at 905 522-7529.