Culture Writer Frankie Rhodes reviews The Revlon Girl and finds herself moved by the fantastic acting and the mix of humour with profound tragedy
Content Warning: This article contains themes of death and grieving.
Theatre based on tragic events can risk monopolising the action with unstructured grief. A play based on the real-life tragedy of a colliery spill that destroyed a local school, killing 116 children, certainly risks this. But the Crescent have created a production that is not only heart-wrenchingly sad, but funny, thought-provoking, and surprising.
Set in 1960s Aberfan, Wales, Neil Anthony Docking’s play opens with sound effects that depict the devastating events. The sound of children playing is followed by a school bell, and after that – the all-encompassing reverberation of a landslide. While this captured in a few seconds the cause for grief, it was far better delivered by the four leading ladies that carried this play: the mothers of children who died.
These ladies have set up a meeting place to protest, talk and generally try to make sense of their altered lives. For one of their sessions, they decide to invite a “Revlon Girl” from Bristol, in the hopes that her mobile makeup trolley might help them to feel a bit more human. What follows is an hour of outbursts, debates and monologues about what it means to go on existing after such a disaster.
It’s clear from the start that the Revlon Girl (Femke Whitney) doesn’t want to be there. The ever-leaking roof of the room where the tutorial is held announces its shabbiness, and forced friendliness descends into plain awkwardness as she fails to hide her guilt. Whitney’s portrayal is disjointed, but effectively so, as she moves between stages of attempting to understand the other women’s grief.
With ladies slowly filtering into the make-up session, the play has that Chekhovian feel of liminal space: one where characters are constantly failing to arrive, or attempting to leave. The four people who do turn up are an eclectic mix of emotions: Rona is furious, Marilyn can’t stop crying, Sian is hysterically happy, and Jean is running around trying to make everybody tea. In their stilted conversations and arguments, they feel refreshingly human.
The group’s exchanges with the Revlon Girl form much of the drama, marking her as a clear outsider. Even her costuming highlights her difference: she wears a striking tartan suit that clashes with the red-brown colour scheme of the group. In particular, the commercial nature of her job simply doesn’t fly with these ladies. Taglines like ‘bring new life to your skin’ take on a new resonance when spoken to a group of grieving mothers, and this irony is handled well.
Rona, expertly carried by Katie Merriman, uses cutting dark comedy to shock the audience out of any false sense of tranquillity. The production is unafraid to shy away from the facts, with chilling details such as the ‘warnings’ that the local authorities had received about the danger of the tip, and the measly compensation given to bereaved families. As the REP prepares to put on ‘Value Engineering’ – a verbatim reconstruction of the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry – these questions couldn’t be more pressing.
Makeup is a paradoxical concept in the play; it stimulates the women by getting them to discuss shades and routines, but disgusts them at other times. When the ever-grumpy Marilyn attempts to wipe off her under-eye concealer, she is met with the cries of ‘but you look so much better!’, only to respond ‘I don’t want to look better.’ We settle on an understanding that while ‘it may only be paint’, looking after yourself, and simply feeling able to show your face, is an important part of recovery.
While some plot points towards the end of the production risk tying it up in a neat little clichéd bow, for the most part, this play is carried by its fantastic cast. Is a vital chance for the women of Aberfan to finally have their say: with not a single female on the committee of the Disaster Fund, this social group is the only place for these ladies to use their voice. Both their laughter and their tears are infectious, affecting the audience throughout. The theatre programme pulls out a prominent quote from Rona: ‘in forty or fifty years no one’s going to remember what happened here anyway’. Now, I certainly will.
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