It’s the superb acting, Leslie Martinson’s lively direction and the highly polished production values that stand out in TheatreWorks’ West Coast premiere of “The Pitmen Painters.”
In the cast of eight, every role is played to perfection, but how can you go wrong with such established local actors as Dan Hiatt, James Carpenter, Paul Whitworth, Marcia Pizzo and others?
That’s not to say Lee Hall’s play — based on the true story of a group of mid-20th-century miners in Northern England who became renowned “outsider” artists — is not fascinating.
Hall, who wrote “Billy Elliot” (the movie and the book for the musical) as well as the recent film “War Horse,” discovered this remarkable tale in William Feaver’s “The Pitmen Painters” and wrote the play on commission for a theater in Newcastle upon Tyne, not far from the actual site of the Ashington Colliery, where the men labored their whole lives.
When the miners, most of whom had left school for work by the age of 11, first attended an art appreciation class sponsored by the Workers Education Association, they had no background in visual art. So their progressive-minded teacher (Whitworth) hit upon the idea of encouraging them to paint their own lives.
Which they did, with remarkable results over time, eventually exhibiting their work to much acclaim in galleries in England.
Hall conflated the group to three “pitmen,” including the most accomplished among them, Oliver Kilbourn (Patrick Jones), plus a Marxist “dental mechanic” (Hiatt) and a chronically unemployed lad (Nick Pelczar).
We follow the burgeoning of their amazing natural talent as well as their intellectual growth and increasingly sophisticated ability to articulate ideas and feelings. The play stretches from 1934 to 1947, by which time the British mining industry had been nationalized.
Hall’s diverse characters explore social class divisions and assumptions, politics, the concept of team effort, the meaning and purpose of art, and the definition of artist. They harshly (and hilariously) critique each others’ paintings; and squabble amongst themselves. When a wealthy art collector (Pizzo) offers Oliver a life-changing opportunity, he faces inner conflict.
As meaty as all this is, Hall packs so much in that the play feels overlong, overly talky and at times didactic. In the end it’s the individual performances, and the original paintings — some of which are beautifully projected (Jim Gross, projections designer) — that are the most memorable.
The Pitmen Painters
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 12
Tickets: $19 to $69
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org