WHEN you create a piece of art, it redefines you. The work is the creator of the artist. That was the joyous discovery of The Pitmen Painters, a group of miners in the 1930s who joined a Workers Educational Association (WEA) class to “find out about the world”.

The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall at Cambridge Arts Theatre until May 21. Review by ANGELA SINGER.

WHEN you create a piece of art, it redefines you. The work is the creator of the artist. That was the joyous discovery of The Pitmen Painters, a group of miners in the 1930s who joined a Workers Educational Association (WEA) class to "find out about the world".

When Robert Lyon, a master of painting at Durham University, turned up one night to offer an art appreciation class, for miners at Ashington Colliery he realised that to learn about paintings they needed to produce them. Once they started, they developed a passion and their talent became obvious to the nation. This beautifully written play has pictures of their paintings projected above the actors' heads on a screen. They are remarkable pictures. The observation of body language is powerful, as a miner hews the coal, the focus is on his strong arms, as two men hold back their whippets before a race, you see the pent up energy in the men's bodies - and the tension. As Mr Lyon told his class: "You don't have to understand art - it's how it makes you feel."

The play, directed by Max Roberts in a Live Theatre Newcastle and National Theatre co-production, has a rich seam of humour as the characters spark off against each other. In the days when mines were still owned by the gentry (they were nationalised in 1948) Marxist Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson) reminds the class bitterly that they have earned millions for the duke who owned the pit. George Brown as the union man and class organiser (Deka Walmsley) wants everything to go through "a proper procedure" and Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker) is the realist. When rich patroness Helen Sutherland appears with a penchant for modern art, Jimmy says: "Well, that's all right because these were painted this week."

There were 30 people on the register for the class though only five are portrayed in the play - all producing fine work. Oliver Kilbourn (Trevor Fox) is offered patronage by Helen Sutherland, a shipping heiress, so he can leave the mine but he turns her down. I wondered if when he said to her: "I can't take your money" she really replied: "Somebody gave it to me." Never mind, this is the spirit of the play, which has at its heart a debate about class, cash and talent.

There are sterling performances from a cast which has flawlessly stepped back into the demeanour of the period between the wars when a leisure pursuit meant doing rather than watching.

In the mid-1980s, the last surviving founder member of the group, Oliver Kilbourn, was still painting. He said: "A key factor in our long life, I think, was the fact that we were never a commercial group but preserved our idealism. We thought we were doing something that no one else could do. We were depicting a way of life both below and above ground in a mining village that only we knew by experiencing it. Life goes on and we paint life.

" A funny thing, once you've painted a picture you feel it's part of your life."

The group soon became knowledgeable about other artists, past and present and wrote insightfully about them. Playwright, Lee Hall, puts it more prosaically: "That the group managed to achieve so much unaided and unabetted should remind us that dumbing down is not a prerequisite of culture being more accessible. That is a lie perpetuated by those who want to sell us shit."

This theatrical gem - which does not spare its actors exquisite and long, impassioned speeches - has much to say about education.