The lights go out and the sound of children playing fills London’s Park Theatre. Suddenly there’s a rumble that gets increasingly louder. And then…silence.
While the Aberfan disaster is not one of Britain’s worst, the loss of 116 children and 28 adults at 9.15am on October 21, 1966, is a tragedy that still resonates.
And the opening few seconds of Neil Anthony Docking’sThe Revlon Girl will haunt you.
Docking’s outstanding, though distressing, play, fabulously directed by Maxine Evans, had me wiping tears from my eyes – and, after 40 years of reviewing theatre, it takes a lot to crack this cynical old bird.
This quite extraordinary drama will touch your heart and soul like no other and should never have been consigned to Park Theatre’s smaller stage where the entire run has all but sold out.
Frankly, it is scandalous that it wasn’t put on in the theatre’s larger P200 space or a bigger venue entirely.
Fifty years ago the youngsters in Aberfan, a tiny South Wales mining village, had just started lessons at Pantglas Junior School when a colossal slag heap, turned into slurry by the incessant rain, slid down a mountain engulfing the school and nearby homes.
The catastrophe tore the heart out of the village, wiping out a generation, and families are still struggling today to cope with the memories.
The Revlon Girl is set eight months after the disaster.
A group of women, who all lost children at the school, are meeting in secret after inviting along a cosmetics demonstrator.
Such is the strength of feeling in Aberfan that her attendance would be seen as a frippery while the community mourns their terrible loss.
But Sian hopes that a little bit of lippy and a brush of blusher will kickstart their lives and marriages. Her friends – Jean, Marilyn and Rona – aren’t so confident.
There is still so much pain and anguish. How can eye shadow heal their gaping wounds?
Docking’s insightful, well-researched plot is profoundly moving.
But the undisputed success of The Revlon Girl is mainly thanks to the remarkably powerful performances by Charlotte Gray as the courageous Sian, Bethan Thomas playing foul-mouthed and feisty Rona (take ear plugs if you’re in the front row), Zoe Harrison as the religious Jean and Michelle McTernan as the still traumatised Marilyn.
Antonia Kinlay, as Charlotte, the Revlon Girl, gives an emotional turn as she finds herself on the receiving end of the women’s distress and anger.
Walking into a lion’s den would probably be safer than facing a tongue-lashing from the blunt, outspoken Rona.
By the end of the 85-minute drama the audience has relived the terrible tragedy through the eyes of the victims and their families and I defy you to not to affected.
Sian finds it impossible to stop trembling, her body wracked by the pain of that unimaginable day.
We hear, in her glorious Welsh accent, Sian describe how her tough, miner, husband ran from the pit to the school and dug bodies out with his bare hands hoping to find their beloved son, Paul.
Marilyn, who lost two daughters, is convinced the disaster could reoccur with the remaining six coal tips on the mountain. She has turned to mediums and spiritualists to get through the ordeal.
She chillingly tells Revlon that by adding up the date of the tragedy – 21+10+19+66 – you get 116, spookily, the number of children who died.
She’s in pieces, wanting to blame someone for the disaster.
The pregnant Jean, whose husband is management at the pit and therefore partially responsible – according to Rona – puts her faith in god despite losing her brilliant young son.
Foghorn Rona refuses to talk about what happened. Instead she lashes out and doesn’t care who she hurts.
Bethan Thomas’s Rona is fierce. There’s a rage inside of her that she finds impossible to contain yet her character also provides a lot of the laughs.
While this is a tale of unbearable sorrow and grief there are moments of pure light.
There are awkward silences. Revlon finds herself saying the most inappropriate things as she starts her sales patter. Rona is just as bad.
Furious that the coal board want to make amends by building a memorial swimming pool she snaps: “What’s the point? All the children are dead!”
Shocking, heartbreaking but, ultimately uplifting, The Revlon Girl, offers no cosmetic solution to the women’s pain but does suggest the power of powder and eye-liner in helping heal wounds.
This is one of the finest plays I’ve seen in a long while. I hope it transfers or tours because it deserves a wider audience.
Running until October 14. Call the theatre to ask about returns 020 7870 6876.
The Revlon Girl
Shocking, heartbreaking The Revlon Girl offers no cosmetic solution to unbearable pain but does suggest the power of powder and eye-liner in helping heal wounds.