When you've spent weeks in the quest for that most elusive grail, The Little-Known Well-Written Female Soliloquy, it becomes almost impossible not to dismember every play that you hear, mentally slicing, abridging and gender-swapping the script like a dramaturgical Gunther von Hagens.The long dark days of spring 2004, spent in a gritty-eyed, dead-legged residency in the aisles of French's, plugged into Radio 4 in the desperate hope that the Norfolk-set drama about the obssessive compulsive clown with the telepathic dog might yield a shining showacse gem, have scarred my scansion for life.
My nemesis in those nerve-clamped, pressure-ramped weeks was Lee Hall. After sitting through what seemed like the hundredth soulful-eyed northerner doing a humbly humorous piece from Cooking With Elvis, I Luv You Jimmy Spud or Spoonface Steinberg, I became tempted to turn my stage combat rapier on myself. Hall brings it upon himself. I absolutely adore his outspoken politicisation and commitment to worthy causes and big ideas, but they don't half lend themselves to didactic, sentimental monologues that can be raped of all context and repackaged for melodramatic massacre.
The Pitmen Painters, now on its second run at the National, suffers from these same Hallmarks. Based on the solid gold story of The Ashington Group, a community of miners who started an art appreciation class in 1934 and went on to produce some extraordinary, luminous, class-busting paintings from life in the pits, the play has a tendency to turn its characters into static mouthpieces for long, rousing paeans to the value of art, community and social change. By the interval I was longing for Hall to embody his message rather more subtly and dynamically through the action and relationships in the play, although to some degree I still admired his unfashionably strident soapboxing. And it is more justified in this play than his others; in 1945, one of the group, Harry Wilson, said that "when I have done a piece of painting I feel that something has happened, not only to the panel or canvas but to myself", and play does show the pitmen becoming something like possessed oracles, self-consciously striving to overcome their oppression by vocalising the symbolism and philosophy of their transformative art.
But if I ever, ever see someone do one of those pieces in a showcase, I will not only boo, I will throw coal.