There is a strong tradition in the UK, especially in the north of England, of self-improvement through education. Growing up in Yorkshire, I was accustomed from an early age to seeing people going off in the evening to the local 'tech' or some other institution to take courses and classes to further their skills and knowledge as part of their work, but also to 'improve their minds' as it was often termed at the time. This play by Lee Hall, which previously had a run at the National and makes a welcome return, is based on the work of an organisation, the WEA (Workers' Educational Association) which was established in 1903 and survives today with the aim of providing 'educational opportunities to adults facing social and economic disadvantage'.
The play starts in 1934 in Northumberland. The effects of the depression are still evident, but a group of miners cast off their colliery work-clothes and don their suits each week to attend WEA classes at a dingy hut which they share with scouts and an assortment of other groups. When we first meet the miners, they are waiting for a new class to begin – art appreciation – and the group's organiser, George, is collecting the 'tanners' (sixpences, or 2.5 p in today's currency) as the members' subscriptions. When Mr Lyon, the tutor, arrives from Newcastle, he tries to introduce the miners to works from the Renaissance, but has to review his subject matter when the miners demand to know how to discern meaning from art. The class looks set to crumble into anarchy, but then Mr Lyon has the inspirational idea of getting the miners to learn about art by doing it. So he sets them the task of producing a lino cut, and in subsequent classes they analyse their efforts and are set new work to complete.
The first half of the play carries most of the humour and sets the scene. By the interval, the miners are well into their art and have come to their own understanding of what 'art means'. In the second half, one of the miners is offered the chance to be a full-time artist with the support of a 'stipend' from a wealthy patron, but rejects the offer because he worries about 'cutting himself off' from his fellows and the community.
The characterisations are uniformly excellent thanks to sympathetic and sensitive direction by Max Roberts, and a cast who really care about the characters and the remarkable people they are describing. Joe Caffrey's George is the leader of the group who governs by the rule book. “This is a democratic organisation”, he says. “Nobody's voting on anything!”. Michael Hodgson's Harry was gassed in the First World War, works as a 'dental mechanic' and seizes any and every opportunity to denounce the capitalist system. But it is Trevor Fox's Oliver who is most movingly affected by his exposure to art. He stays up all night to complete his painting of 'The Deluge' because it's the first time he feels that he has really achieved something.
Originally, there were at least 30 members of the Ashington group of artists, but Lee Hall has condensed that number into a clutch of 5 pitmen – well, 4 pitmen and an unemployed 'young lad' – amalgamating characters from the original group. This sensible device not only makes the play manageable but gives it an intimacy which might otherwise be lost. It also enables us to get to know and better understand the main characters and their motivations.
The work of the Ashington group is an essential part of the play, both as real-size copies and also slides which are displayed on screens above the stage. These works depict scenes from the miners' own life experiences – in the pit where they worked and in their neighbourhoods. The paintings may lack the technique of trained artists, but they are nonetheless endearingly moving and, in many ways inspirational, as indeed is the play itself.
"Richly funny, deeply moving and continuously entertaining."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
External links to full reviews from popular press