Byline: NICK CURTIS
LONDON theatre has just enjoyed its best year on record, with 2008's box office revenues approaching half a billion pounds. And 42-yearold Lee Hall can take some of the credit for that.
Billy Elliot the musical the story of a miner's son striving to be a ballet dancer during the pit strike of 1984, arguably the most successful new production of the past decade was adapted from Hall's screenplay, and continues to pack houses in its fifth year in London. It also became the toast of Broadway when it moved to New York in the autumn, of which more later.
Hall, a working-class boy from Tyneside, is a master at working serious themes and grand emotions into a very popular style. Nowhere is this more evident than in his latest play, The Pitmen Painters. Having begun life at Newcastle's Live Theatre in 2007, it tells the story of a group of miners from Ashington Colliery who, through a pioneering workers' education programme in the inter-war years, became artists, acclaimed by the aesthetes of the day and befriended by the likes of modernist pioneer Ben Nicholson.
The play, directed by Max Roberts, won five-star reviews from the critics and raves from the public both up North and when it arrived at the National's Cottesloe theatre last year where it was honoured with an Evening Standard Award for best new play. Now it has earned a second run at the National Theatre, moving to the much larger Lyttelton stage.
It's not hard to see why it has become such a hit. Hall regards it as a sort of prequel to Billy Elliot - and certainly, like the earlier work, The Pitmen Painters is hugely funny and moving. It is also intellectually spell-binding in its explorations of art and class meanings.
"On one level, it's Dad's Army," acknowledges Hall, in his soft Tyneside accent.
"But, given that it also talks about fairly abstruse issues, I was still surprised how well it was received. I mean, nobody dies on stage, nobody gets married, there's no sex or drugs." Yet in Newcastle, the bar rang every night to heated post-show discussions about art between "lairds who had come down from Scotland and exminers, all of them with really strong opinions".
National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner jumped on a train to see it one Friday, and immediately offered to transfer the production, lock, stock and northern cast, to the National.
The play, based on a book by the art ' I'm still well was dies on gets no sex or critic William Feaver, was conceived for the reopening of Live Theatre after its recent [pounds sterling]5 million refit. The subject matter seemed to fit: "Art, things like the Baltic gallery and the Angel of the North, has become an important part of the rebirth of Newcastle as a postindustrial city."
For Hall, the project was a return to his roots in every sense. He made his first faltering steps in writing at Live's youth theatre, and Billy Elliot had its first reading there. "The question begged by the play, if you look at it in conjunction with Billy Elliot, is why on earth, 40 years on, was a young boy pilloried for having the same sort of aspiration as the pitmen?" he says.
"That has been a massive cultural, political failure." Hall thinks a symptom of a wider dumbing down of society has been a new stereotyping of the working class: as work-shy, culturally illiterate, unwilling and incapable of bettering themselves.
"I don't understand why people don't write about and examine class more," he says.
"It's not like it's gone away. It so determines everything in our lives and everyday decisions. It is still utterly dominant in all our lives." And yet, had the film world been a little more accommodating of Hall's talents, Pitmen might never have been written. For the past nine years, ever since Stephen Daldry's hit film of Billy Elliot catapulted him to the top of the movie moguls' "must-call" lists, Hall has been in "development hell". …