“It was all about money. The cheapest solution. No one gave a shit about us”
We often talk about state-of-the-nation plays (well, at least Billington does) but it has often felt like a somewhat dusty, ephemeral concept that has passed me by in plays I have to force myself to see, if I go at all (qv The Entertainer). But it is a notion that strikes me deeply whilst thinking about Neil Anthony Docking’s extraordinary gut-wrench of a play The Revlon Girl, bracingly insightful about how we as a nation deal with disasters, an impassioned cri-de-cœur for those most directly affected.
I saw an earlier incarnation of The Revlon Girl a couple of years ago and I was deeply impressed then and deeply moved. But now, in these post Grenfell times, its relevance stings. Docking’s prescience has intensified and sharpened the experience of watching the play, almost unbearably so as we watch corporate malfeasance, government disinterest, invasive media practices and the dismissal of community concern in a play set over 50 years ago, events that were repeated almost play-by-play in West London not three months ago.
The subject here though is the Aberfan disaster of 1966 – the loss of 144 lives in a small Welsh mining village, 116 of them schoolchildren – and how anyone can begin to piece themselves together after such an unimaginable tragedy. One way, for some people, is a support group for the bereaved mothers and we meet them one rainy night 8 months after the event, where they’ve taken the bold move of booking a representative from Revlon to give them beauty tips, but light relief still proves hard to come by.
Along with the sensitively considered direction from Maxine Evans, Docking’s skill is in showing us that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, just your way, and if you’re lucky enough to have people to help you through it, then it lightens the load just a little. From the fantastically feisty Rona to the shell-shocked Marilyn, the eager-to-please Sian to the officiously brusque Jean, we explore contrasting responses to a terrible shared history with heart-breaking acuity, a portrait of a society pushed to the brink by the sheer injustice of it all.
Eleri Lloyd’s design wisely keeps the visuals abstract with just a hint of the looming pit above the village and so too does Chris Barrett’s lighting do its work subtly. And in the Park’s studio space, the company of five actors are simply superb – Michelle McTernan’s traumatised Marilyn remains an exceptional performance but this time, it was Charlotte Gray’s barely-holding-it-together Sian who stood out, every breath a battle to keep from falling apart, every word a trigger for tears to stream from my eyes. But remarkably, despite it all, The Revlon Girl is really quite funny and uplifting too.
There’s real sophistication in Docking’s writing as he layers in the humour that gets us through the toughest of days – literally so in the incorporation of an absolutely inspired coda that just about keeps you from sobbing out of the theatre – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen swearing used so effectively in a drama. So whilst this is a story to break your heart, it is also one to mend it, to fill it with joy at the endurance of the best of humanity even in the face of the greatest indignities.
Two years ago, I called The Revlon Girl “one of the best pieces of new writing in London” and now it has returned, that statement is as true as ever, perhaps even more so, as the parallels with Grenfell are all too easily, and shockingly, drawn. You hope their fate is not to end up as betrayed as the people of Aberfan; you hope that this truly isn’t the state of our nation… This really is an extraordinary and important piece of theatre – of social history too – giving voice to those who so sorely deserve it, and it is one that I recommend wholeheartedly.