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Review: Pitmen Painters at Blyth Phoenix Theatre

The Pitmen Painters
Blyth Phoenix Theatre
Until Saturday 12th November 2016

It was the start of the weekend and it was a chance to pay our first visit to the Phoenix Theatre in Blyth. The modern theatre was a short walk from the car park on Freehold Street and first impressions were very positive. The friendly team quickly advised us on where to buy tickets, sold us a programme and sorted us out with drinks. The venue had good views from the seats though it seemed odd how the audience seems to prefer to sit on one side of the auditorium for some reason. In fact the only thing we’d change would be the ice cream brand – but we all have our favourites!

The Pitmen Painters is by Lee Hall of Billy Elliot fame. He based the play on the book Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984 by William Feaver It was another example of a Newcastle Live Theatre production that became really popular and found itself playing at much larger venues including on Broadway. We have pointed a wagging finger at the dodgy accents from southern actors trying to produce a Durham accent in Billy Elliot but there were no problems here in this Phoenix Theatre Company production. It was great to be in Northumberland in order to see a show celebrating the regions creativity with accents coming from people who know what they’re saying.

The action begins at the home of the Ashington branch of the Worker Education Association in 1934. Having exhausted the study of evolution, they decided to turn their quest for education to art appreciation. The group, consisting mainly of local miners, use their subs of a tanner a week to pay for a lecturer to come up from Newcastle to come along and help them appreciate art. Lecturer, and painter, Robert Lyon quickly realises that a study of how one might feel staring at a renaissance painting wasn’t working. He then suggests that they’d be better off painting their own art and trying to appreciate that. This starts a journey that compliments their strong passion for hard work and socialist ideals.

Photo: Paul Cummings
The miners are quite happy to discuss how they feel about their own pictures but are less approving of life drawings involving naked students or making profit from their work.  The tale runs up to the start of the nationalisation of the pits.

We are given a chance to explore both the concept of how unusual it was for working class people to be creative and the original socialist ideals that set up, for example, the NHS. Lee Hall’s script gives the audience a clear understanding of both pride in their day job and the desire for education and change. Just because a lad had to find employment at the age of 10 because he had a family to support does not mean that they do not yearn to learn about places they will never have the chance to visit.

The show has a good ensemble cast, including John Thompson, Kevin Bradley and Daniel Collins, that is both entertaining and true to the story. In the most part they come across as the miners rather than as actors pretending to be miners. For example Dave Cooper is sufficiently circumspect as Oliver Kilbourn whereas Trevor Bell is rousing as the socialist dental technician Harry Wilson without getting tiresome as he gets on his left-leaning soap box. By contrast Jonathan Cash hits the right note as the lecturer Robert Lyon, who knows how to feel about art but cannot perceive what life must be like down the pit. Jodie Reay is like a breath of fresh air as she appears as Susan for her modelling job and Jen Woods helps change the pace as art collector Helen. Director Chris Johnson has done well to capture the spirit of the original production.

A good first impression of the Northumberland theatre. We will be back!

Review by Stephen Oliver - Follow him at

Pitmen Painters appears at Blyth’s Phoenix Theatre from 9th - 12th November at 7.30pm.
Tickets are £13.50 & £12.50 for concessions and available from the Box Office on 01670 367228 or online at

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