The Revlon Girl achieves that most delicate of balances: heart-breaking and humorous. It’s not the perfect piece and may not change the course of history, but it’s an emotional and truthful history lesson, and a beautiful portrait of life, death and survival in Aberfan, North Wales.
On the 21st October 1966, the sleepy mining village of Aberfan was the site of an horrific tragedy: a catastrophic collapse at a local colliery spoil tip released over 100,000 cubic metres of rock and shale down the mountain and onto the Pantglas area of the village. The main building hit was the local junior school, where lessons had just begun. 109 children were killed, alongside 5 teachers. Across the village, other buildings were destroyed and a further 17 adults and 23 adults were killed.
The Revlon Girl takes place eight months after this devastating day. Based on a real premise, the play tells the story of a group of bereaved mothers who met every week above a local hotel to talk, cry and even laugh without feeling guilty.
Tonight Sian, Rona, Marilyn and Jean meet for a covert and special occasion: the ‘Revlon Girl’ has driven all the way from Bristol in her fancy car to give them a demonstration of the latest make-up products and trends. Each has different feelings towards the evening – and different approaches to their grief. As Rona proclaims, the Revlon Girl is in for quite the show.
And so is the audience. The first half or so of the straight-through eighty-five minutes feels light and breezy: a new person in an old town, a leaking skylight and meddling mothers. The second half turns you inside out.
The unfairness, the hope, the complete lack of it. Writer Neil Anthony Docking explores the full topography of grief – bitterness, avoidance, religion, isolation – and how each human can contain some, all or none of these at once. The audience was sobbing. Can there be a more sob-worthy story than the death of children? And the deep, deep pain of their loved ones?
The play is not perfect. Its accessibility will have played to its strengths during its sold-out tour of Wales, but dramaturgically this means characters can be a little simplistic or straightforward. Revlon’s own pseudo-connection to the pain of the disaster is poorly sewed and the last fifteen minutes ring you out in peaks and troughs as each character has their swan-song.
Director Maxine Evans – also an accomplished writer (Coronation Street) and actor (Call The Midwife) – has nurtured a well-knit group of women who are believable, unique and clearly from one community. The play’s very nature lends itself to stasis but Evans manages to keep the stage picture moving – both physically and emotionally.
Sian, the ersatz-organiser of the evening, is played with charm and character by Charlotte Gray, whose generally cheery disposition dissolves in a convincing and crippling revelation. Antonia Kinlay’s Revlon is the perfect counterpart and contrast to the mothers onstage, although the play focuses more on displaying the range of products rather than Kinlay’s acting ability.
Zoe Harrison’s Jean is a matronly Anna Camp (#MamaCamp): perfect and pristine, with flashes of fight. Michelle McTernan portrays the reclusive and obsessive Marilyn with a quiet confidence and a sadness that sits deep in your stomach. Bethan Thomas revels in the bolshie, potty-mouthed Rona, giving a brilliant, bristling performance (and justification enough to never queue again).
Eleri Lloyd’s set is eerie and a little more dystopic than dreary meeting room, however the set’s shapes and constant dripping make for an atmospheric evening. The costumes are spot-on and wigs perfectly coiffed. The sound design – also created by Neil Anthony Dockling – is sombre and beautifully performed, in part, by The City Chamber Choir.
The Revlon Girl is revealing and full of feeling. Its performances are accomplished and its story deserves greater recognition. A refreshingly simple premise, based on heart-breaking reality, that features an almost all-female team.
All great things – just make sure you take your tissues.