The Revlon Girl
Ned Hopkins | 21 Sep 2017 11:07am
Human suffering arising from natural disasters such as the recent spate of terrifying hurricanes and, now, the Mexican earthquake, can largely be blamed on God. The catastrophic tragedy that occurred in Aberfan in October 1966 with the loss of 144 lives (mainly children) due to a colliery spillage was entirely the result of corporate negligence and avoidable. That added awareness deepens one’s instinctive empathy for the people involved in such largescale calamities and laces it with outrage. The apportion of blame and responsibility for the recent Grenfell Tower inferno has yet to be officially determined, yet initial findings suggest human negligence had a considerable hand in it. Have we learnt nothing over the past fifty-one years?
I remember, as a student, walking down a Birmingham street and seeing the newspaper stands announcing the horrors of Aberfan, paralysed with disbelief that such a catastrophe could have been allowed to happen in our country, later beyond credulity on discovering the socialist government of the day had resisted making safe the remaining rock and shale tips. But as Rona, one of the characters in Neil Anthony Docking’s small gem of a play The Revlon Girl, reminds us: ‘it’s all about money.’ So, no change there! Even the Unions didn’t give a damn.
My heart lurched as the lights went down and we heard happy children’s voices, knowing what was to come, especially as it segued into the accelerating shuffle of slurry about to roll down the hillside and bury the school. But that concluded the production’s direct use of emotional manipulation. I came away from the play – beautifully paced by director Maxine Evans – remembering the humour as much as the pain. As Readers’ Digest used to head is regular column: Laughter is the Best Medicine.
Set in a room in a community building, eight months after the disaster (note: no extravagant NT set here, just six folding chairs and a small table set against a black screen and wall – effectively lit by Chris Barrett) we are invited to consider the emotional and psychological impact of the events on four recognisable, contrasting village wives and mothers. Think Calendar Girls with Merthyr Tydfil accents.
But, whereas in Tim Firth’s play, only one woman has suffered a loss, here four bereaved mothers meet regularly to have a cup of tea, let off steam and bicker cathartically as a way of coping with their grief. Yet, if the play starts in a soap-opera-ish way with running gags about a leaky roof and the imminent arrival of the women’s convener who never actually turns up, like Peer Gynt’s onion the layers peel away to reveal poignant insight to what is going on behind the bravado. Throughout, the rain outside drips into a bucket, constantly reminding them, and us, of that earlier, terrible day, when water was the catalyst for the hell to come.
A Revlon representative has been invited to come and talk to the group and demonstrate how they might cheer themselves up by taking more interest in their appearance. It’s a dual metaphor: make-up as an escapist mask on the one hand: and a way of putting on a brave front for the world on the other. The women fear other villagers might find out and consider their initiative to be shallow and in bad taste. Yet Revlon (Antonia Kinlay) who has arrived from Bristol in her smart car and standard English voice, dressed and coiffed to the hilt ‘60s style – as are the other women in their best Richard Shops outfits and backcombed or permed hair – proves to be as vulnerable as they are, ultimately revealing how she once suffered the tragic and avoidable loss of a sibling, and can relate to their torment.
The 85-minute piece is beautifully acted throughout. As the play develops, we become increasingly aware of the individuals’ personal demons. Chuch-goer Jean (Zoë Harrison), is already pregnant but finding her situation challenging. Since Sian (Charlotte Gray) lost her son, her husband – who, she keeps reminding us, once told her she had pretty eyes – has neglected her physically; she yearns for his attention and have the chance of a second family. Both women know that the birth of another child will never replace a lost one, yet it is the only way they know of going forward.
Marilyn (Michelle McTernan) on the other hand, allows her life to be ruled by her faith in the supernatural and superstition. The downside to this is that she continually blames herself for thinking she ignored the portents of the crisis, yet is consoled by believing she will one day be reunited with her dead children. Rona (Bethan Thomas) the most vocal of the group – who swears like a trouper and tries to manage everything and everybody – wants to move away from Aberfan because she can’t bear to walk down the street, seeing her own unhappiness continually mirrored in the faces of her friends. It’s a powerful performance that begins as broad-ish comedy but develops movingly, helping to bring together the author’s main points.
The Revlon Girls is yet another example of a growing number of simply staged, yet well-written, directed and performed dramas that are now appearing in studio theatres around the country and holding their own with high-profile ‘new writing’ venues. Another good play for women, it certainly deserves a longer life and would be ideal, in due course, for production by community theatre organisations.