The Revlon Girl, Park Theatre, London, review: A rich drama about grief, greed, and make-up

Four mothers grieve the loss of their children in the Aberfan disaster in a remarkably warm, sorrowful and at times even funny drama about survivors, small-town bickering and make-up.

Joe Vesey-Byrne
Tuesday 26 September 2017 13:20
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Antonia Kinlay in The Revlon Girl at Park Theatre
Antonia Kinlay in The Revlon Girl at Park Theatre

In 1966, in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, the “tips” – essentially man-made hills of discarded coal and the insides of the mines – were piled on top of a stream which after months collapsed, sliding down onto the village below and killing 144 people in just a few minutes. Of these, 116 were children, whose school lay in the path of the slide.

Set eight months after the tragedy, The Revlon Girl tells the story of five bereaved mothers gathering for an almost ceremonial visit from one of the Revlon make-up girls. The play and their evening touch upon grief, guilt, greed, religion and the horrific etiquette of mourning.

Staged in the smaller studio for a more intimate performance, the Park Theatre presents a remarkably warm, sorrowful, and times funny drama about survivors, small-town bickering and make-up.

The Revlon Girl, despite its subject matter is full of laughter, mainly because of the interplay between four women who have known one another since childhood, yet initial jokes are hard to stomach because of the dark subject matter that will inevitably follow, and the awkwardness of the outsider from Revlon – a proper outsider, from over the border in Bristol.

Much of the sadness in The Revlon Girl comes from the fact these women are trapped by the etiquette of grieving.

At the start of the evening, the women ask the titular Revlon girl to pretend she is from the Women’s Institute or the Red Cross, out of fear they might be considered venal, or uncaring mothers. Each is finding the right way to behave as a grieving mother, and eight months on they are no keener to move on from the disaster. As one remarks in a chilling moment: “I don’t want to look better.”

(From left) Bethan Thomas, Michelle McTernan, Charlotte Gray and Antonia Kinlay are unmissable as Rona, Marilyn, Sian and ‘Revlon’ respectively

Charlotte Grey as the nervous and kind Sian is heartbreaking from the moment she enters, and her description of her husband’s struggle to cope with the disaster is most moving of a series of powerful monologues.

The characterisation, both in writing and performance, were perfect. Rather than being portrayed as helpless women without sin, their grief is shown to create human and unpleasant characteristics.

Jean, played with aplomb by Zoë Harrison, radiates a contempt for her surviving child which at times makes the audience physically wince.

The traditional solace of religion is oddly yet effectively coupled with the slogans used by Revlon.

The set sales script, read aloud by the Revlon girl, and her recitation of adverts become a kind of prayer for the assembled women. Slogans are repeated by the women as psalms or mantras, and the transformative, almost apotheosis power of putting make-up on is lauded as a means of survival.

Any misgivings about with The Revlon Girl are down to structure rather than performance. It slightly stretches credibility that after eight months since these outbursts all occur in one evening, and therefore at times when it can feel overwrought. The huge volume of emotional ground to cover is so difficult to compress in the limited period of 85 minutes, performed in real time, that it is prevented from being an entirely realistic performance.

The strength of the hugely talented actors carries the play beyond any problems with structural limitations, and makes the performance of The Revlon Girl a memorable and emotionally charged evening.

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