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The Pitman Painters: From Ashington to Broadway
Actors in The Pitman Painters
The original cast will travel to New York to perform

The true story of a group of artistic miners from Northumberland will get international exposure later this year when it travels to Broadway.

The Pitman Painters, by Billy Elliot creator Lee Hall, tells the story of the Ashington Group - an amateur art group founded in 1934 by local miners.

The play premiered at Live Theatre in Newcastle in 2007 before moving to the National Theatre in London.

It will open at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre in New York in September.

I think a lot of the beauty of the play is the dialect and the accent
Phillipa Wilson

Although on the other side of the world, the US production will still feature the original cast - many of whom are from the north-east of England.The artistic director of Live Theatre, Max Roberts, will direct the play.

Phillipa Wilson, from Tynemouth, plays the character Helen Sutherland.

She said some of the actors have known each other since their teens.

"We've become a very strong ensemble company. We all get on incredibly well, and it's such a special thing," she said.

Whippets by George Blessed, c 1939
Whippets, by George Blessed of the Ashington Group

"This type of play doesn't come along very often."


On paper, a story about a group of painting pitmen sounds like an unlikely blockbuster - but it seems to have caught people's imaginations.

The Ashington Group started out in the early 1930s as a Workers' Educational Association class.

The miners studied topics like evolution and fell into painting after inviting a local lecturer to take an art appreciation class.

Their paintings were inspired by their own lives and included images of the pits and their surroundings in Ashington.

The group held its first exhibition in 1936 at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle and many of the paintings are now on permanent display at Woodhorn Museum in Ashington.

Detail of Pigeon Crees by Jimmy Floyd
The paintings featured aspects of daily life around Ashington

Phillipa said she thought audiences enjoyed the story because it is inspirational.

She said: "I think it's just the story - about these completely ordinary blokes, working men, from Ashington, just becoming these very, very successful people in their own right.

"A few people have said it sounds like a bit of a dull title but actually it's just what it is - they were pitman painters and they were very good at it."

Geordie accent

The Pitman Painters follows Lee Hall's Billy Elliot the Musical in making the move across the Atlantic to Broadway.

The musical has been incredibly successful and won 10 Tony Awards in 2009.

Phillipa Wilson
Phillipa says the story still gives her goosebumps

But what will US audiences make of the Geordie dialogue in The Pitman Painters?

Phillipa said she thought they would enjoy it - even if they don't understand every single word.

"I think a lot of the beauty of it is the dialect and the accent," she said.

"People love the Geordie accent and I think that's part of why people enjoy the play.

"I don't think it's that important that you do get it all, as long as the story draws you in."

You can find out more on the Ashington Group website.

Woodhorn Museum in Ashington also has an exhibition of some of the original paintings and other objects associated with the painters.

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