Walking into the auditorium, the audience were greeted by the sounds of children playing. After they got used to the sound, and learned to ignore it, it stopped. So did the talking in the seats. Then the cycle began again. This was akin to the power of the play that followed, able to draw the audience into the action, then stop their complacency with a cruelly placed line of heart-wrenching emotion.
Set in the wake of the Aberfan Disaster, which saw 28 adults and 116 children killed under a collapsed slag head, Revlon Girl is a tale of grief, depicting four mothers trying to cope with the worst loss imaginable, that of their children, juxtaposed with outside ‘normality’ in the Revlon girl (Emily Webster). The looming presence of the disaster was perfectly conveyed in the presence of six mountain-like slag heaps above the heads of the characters, one of them larger, closer, darker, signifying the impact of the past disaster and the possibility of its repetition.
This play is unavoidably political, as the image of a small community shattered by corporations and governments that ignored them is still all too real. As director Geraint Owen says, ‘the parallels between Aberfan and tragedies such as Grenfell are striking, demonstrating that the issue of authorities turning a blind eye to small communities is just as pressing and alarming today.’ A sentiment hurled through gritted teeth by Rona (Meg Coslett), expressing exasperated despair at the lack of care, at residents’ dismissal, at the £500 valuation of a child’s life.
The portrayals of grief were encapsulating. The actors didn’t simply act out grief but rather the way people cope with it, made all the more powerful by Revlon’s interaction. Webster created a saleswoman who you hardly believe could sell anything, her body language conveying the nervousness and uncertainty of an outsider, the professional front wiped away by the raw emotion of the setting. Each character gives a different, arresting depiction of grief, from the brashness of Meg Coslett’s Rona, who’s personality filled characters and audience alike with a submissive awe, to Amelia Hills’ Marilyn, a mind hollowed out by its inability to move on, so much so that I was taken aback when the frail character that entered was revealed a young, once elegant mother. It is not surprising that this production strove to bring the audience to tears several times. However, it is not through the simplicity of crying mothers: they’ve all got tissues. It is Revlon who is the only one crying.
That was what was so impressive: the production conveyed the interiority of grief, emphasised by the obvious façade of make-up. ‘I don’t wanna look better,’ Marilyn remarks in numbingly quiet grief, and this is what the characters battle: is it right to move on? Should they dwell on the past? Should they fight? Each, however, has a different answer and each is portrayed with as much emotional fervour as the others. This is not to say that it was an arduous hour-and-a-quarter of despair. There were lines of humour, perfectly timed comic turns, and moments of delight amongst it all, but it would always come back to the disaster, to the awareness that these are broken characters.
‘It’s not just lipstick’; and this is not just a performance, it is a well acted and deeply emotional portrayal of the struggle of grief, both enjoyable, funny, arresting and highly prescient, half a century after the events it depicts.