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At art's coal face

Pitmen become painters in Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall's play.

For an audience, Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters is a productive mine of questions. So many questions. A play about men of an English coal-mining town who in the 1930s take up painting and turn out to be quite good, it offers your usual questions around art (What is it? Who makes it? Why make it?), interlaced with your usual questions around class (Why the class system? Can you "escape" it? How to achieve equality?), and enriched by questions around capitalism, industry, community, identity, nudity, war and more.

Patrick Davies's production is so well handled you can really settle into thinking about such things while an assured cast does the work of suggesting them.

The ensemble of eight is no blur of faces, though. Ross Johnston brings a terrier-like quality to Harry the strident socialist; Richard Dey an ill-fated innocence to Young Lad, sacrificed by his society not to a colliery but to World War II; Mark Neilson a deceptive comic simplicity to the seemingly overconfident Jimmy; and so on.

Based on real residents of Ashington, Northumberland, these are portraits detailed enough to effect a subtle testament to diversity-within-community.

The standout performer is necessarily John Glass, whose character, Oliver Kilbourn, was thought the most talented of the Ashington Group, as the pitmen painters came to be known. In the play, Kilbourn is open about his yearning to be a full-time artist, but believes it is too late because his identity as a pitman is firmly fixed. Glass is admirably restrained in the role, carefully avoiding the melodrama to which it lends itself. Brimming with tears but not flooding with them: that's the ticket.

Kilbourn's interactions with his art tutor and his would-be patroness (played by Robert Tripe and Serena Cotton respectively) are perhaps the most revelatory relationships in the play, where we see the class clash exposed. These relationships are handled skilfully by all three. Cotton gives nuance to Helen Sutherland, allowing for the possibility of the patroness as a symbol of the wider consumerist art market; how it gets bored so quickly and lusts after the new.

Movement around the set is emerging as a strong symptom of Davies's direction, and Peter King's set allows plenty of space for that while also providing practical solutions for the big-screen imagery involved in the production.

Final credit must go to the dialect coach, Hilary Norris - because with a play like this, there'd be nowt more disruptive than a bunch of awkward accents.

THE PITMEN PAINTERS, by Lee Hall, directed by Patrick Davies, Fortune Theatre, Dunedin, until October 23, as part of the Otago Festival of the Arts.