Park Theatre, London – until 14 October 2017
Guest reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar
On a 1966 October morning in the small Welsh mining village of Aberfan, an estimated 150,000 tonnes of colliery waste suddenly began to move. Thundering down the slopes, the sliding slurry was to take 144 lives, 116 of whom were children from the local primary school that had long been towered over by the mountainous pile of slag.
Aberfan was a devastatingly cruel tragedy that gripped the nation at the time but that ultimately, as one of the protagonists in The Revlon Girl prophesies, vanished into the annals of history.
Eight months on from the event, we find ourselves at a meeting for Aberfan’s mothers who had lost children in the disaster. It’s a regular occurrence, championed by Sian (Charlotte Gray) who, with her cheerful demeanour and generous character, is one of the mothers herself. On this occasion, they’ve been joined by beautifully put together ‘Revlon’ (Antonia Kinlay) who is there to help the women feel better about themselves through make-up and skincare.
The women’s Revlon session begins with varying levels of enthusiasm for the exercise at hand, with a preview of the products evolving rapidly into a forum for ambiguous tensions and open conflicts to be aired and explored. Everything is touched upon, from personal identity and familial relationships through to media, religion, politics and capitalism. As a small village, Aberfan is not exempt from these complexities and in fact, because it is so small, everything seems more personal.
As a construct, the Revlon girl is a stroke of brilliance. She is the outsider who means only the best for these women and can only empathise, but who gradually moves from being a helpless viewer to a critical dynamic within it. While her journey progresses, so does that of the group along with the definition of female friendship. Sian and Revlon are joined by Jean (Zoë Harrison), Marilyn (Michelle McTernan) and the unforgettable Rona (Bethan Thomas) who brings a particular vigour.
Much has been said about the portrayal of women in arts and the media, with criticisms typically concerned with a lack of complexity. The Revlon Girl fully stares this down and brings to the table five incredibly well-rounded, believable and flawed women who are gripping to watch. Each has their own distinctive personality and constraints, which is particularly interesting considering that they have all followed a broadly similar trajectory through life.
Under Maxine Evans’ direction, Docking’s whip-smart script is transformed into a faultless production. While the audience is taken on a journey that elicits both roaring laughter and tears, the play also challenges preconceptions of grief. In the light of recent disasters both in the UK and abroad, these questions are particularly affecting.
To be human is a complex thing. To be a woman, even more so. To be a mother, and a bereaved one at that, goes beyond comprehension. The Revlon Girl is founded upon a deep understanding of these intricacies, transposed against a real-life disaster of epic proportion. In its exploration of both, it is an astonishing piece of work.
Runs until 14 OctoberReviewed by Bhakti Gajjar