Thursday, 21 September 2017

Review The Revlon Girl

The Revlon Girl
by Neil Anthony Docking

Making It Up

On a rainy day in 1966, one of seven coal waste slag heaps, piled up on a stream above the mining village of Aberfan, slid down the hill, burying, amongst others, the young pupils in the local primary school.

There was a tribunal enquiry and, no doubt, the authorities vowed that lessons would be learned. But below the surface of bureaucratic structures and media hubbub, there are the individual stories of the surviving villagers.

Some of the bereaved mothers formed a support network, meeting regularly at a local hotel and, after a while, organising events to bring some kind of normality back into their lives.

The Revlon Girl is inspired by one such event, the visit of a cosmetics' company representative. Playwright Neil Anthony Docking has turned this into the premise for a play now running at London's Park Theatre.  

Whatever the facts of this visit, The Revlon Girl, while well acted, uneasily mixes real events with fictional scenarios in a piece shaped more like a movie than a stage play.

Four mothers, peaceable Siân (Charlotte Gray),  upwardly mobile Jean (Zoë Harrison), superstitious Marilyn (Michelle McTernan) and wisecracking Rona (Bethan Thomas) are the first to arrive for the talk and demonstration by a doll-like representative (Antonia Kinlay) from American firm Revlon.

As the evening progresses, the veneer cracks and despair and home truths threaten even the solidarity of women whose children have shared the same terrible fate.

Dealing with real life events, especially where those affected are still alive, needs care to strike the correct balance between what really happened and the imaginings of the playwright to bring psychological insight and plausibility.

There are times when authentic voices emerge, an agonized  speech by Rona, dissecting in searing detail the vested interests involved in the tragedy and its aftermath chief amongst these.

Nevertheless, The Revlon Girl is marred on stage by movie tropes and sometimes sitcom-like stereotypes.

This sits awkwardly with far better written more powerful moments which seem out of sync with the rest of the play and make the piece feel cut and pasted together rather than created as an organic story.

It's noticeable that details of the real life visit of the Revlon rep are not outlined in the programme. Nobody is named as being the rep and there are no memories of anybody involved quoted.

This also sat awkwardly for TLT as the play's blurb states it is based on true events. The theatre programme gives only the briefest of details and TLT can find no reference to such a visit outside this play. The details may be true but the lack of solid background in the play does invite questions.

Indeed, TLT's companion wondered why it was a Revlon rep, rather than an Avon representative,  a well known part of 1960s' life bringing American make up glamour to people's homes and allowing women to earn a living.

A look on the internet only found mention of the women's self help group and the hotel meeting. The play itself doesn't set up where the women are meeting and why, apart from an unseen organiser having invited the make up firm rep.

Even allowing for artistic licence, the play appears to invent details to illustrate the supposed psychological state of the women, but some of these inventions feel misjudged.

The title is The Revlon Girl with no mention of Aberfan and it does feel like a true story shoehorned into a harshly stereotypical template. The facts may be correct, but they are introduced rather than explored. 
Nevertheless there's good work by a strong cast doing their best with the often clunky dialogue and contrived sequences, making an impact when the writing becomes more compelling with factual and emotional truths emerging. 

The production is nicely styled with costumes from Beryl Thomas and and wigs by Claire Pritchard-Jones, giving a visceral sense of the period.

The Revlon Girl is strongly influenced by period works such as Made In Dagenham. However it also sometimes veers away from the Aberfan story in a strange fashion, moving into American made-for-televison movie territory.

Indeed TLT could imagine with only a few tweaks a standard feel good purely fictional film where an American make up  saleswoman drives into a town affected by tragedy, determined to make a difference with an arc going through a gamut of emotions from hostility to eventual mutual understanding.

The play even has a few Americanisms which feel unlikely in a 1960s' Welsh village, the influence of cinema at that time notwithstanding.

Yet there is a hint with another out of sync fantastical sequence at the end that perhaps the shoehorning of a real life tragedy into a movie trope is the point the play is making.

The Revlon rep suddenly in monologue comes out with her own motivation in volunteering to come to Aberfan. The women oddly seem to defer to her individual tragedy, or at least there is a specious implication that tragedies can be compared and equalized.

The direction by Maxine Evans and the lighting of Chris Barrett imply a deliberate fantasy but the moment is thrown away.

It's almost as if the writer and the production have the material but there needs to be different emphases to bring out the juxtapositions and meaning. As it is, this may work better on screen but in this particular stage version, it's another jarring change of tone.

Last year marked 50 years since a generation was scarred and almost wiped out by a preventable tragedy at Aberfan. With the Grenfell Tower alleged health and safety negligence, a history of residents' fears ignored and a costly inquiry underway, it's hard for anyone to see how lessons have ever been learned.

The Revlon Girl, which has toured Wales, is awkwardly put together, has missteps and flaws, but any play leading people to find out about the Aberfan tragedy has a worthwhile quality and it's an amber light.

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