Johannes Hjorth

The Aberfan disaster is a defining moment in Welsh history, a catastrophe evoking national sympathy with a critical cultural legacy, yet many people outside Wales have never heard of it. On the 12th of October 1966, a colliery spoil tip above the village of Aberfan collapsed and slid downhill as a slurry, consuming several buildings including Pantglas Junior School. 116 children and 28 adults were killed, most of whom had just started their school day. The tip was the responsibility of the National Coal Board, and subsequent inquiry found them to blame for building against procedure unstable ground on unstable ground, but neither the organisation nor its employees were prosecuted. The people of Aberfan felt betrayed by the lack of official accountability, but the community only became closer in the aftermath of the disaster. Support in funds and condolences from strangers helped residents recover, but support from each other was equally important in coming to terms with what had happened. The Aberfan Young Wives’ Club was one support group, which continues to meet weekly even now. The point of the club is that the disaster is not spoken about; rather, the Wives find light in the dark, arranging speakers and socials in order to share more than grief, without guilt

"The result is a sensitive and emotional play"

The Revlon Girl is set in one of these meetings; writer Neil Anthony Docking discovered that, eight months after the disaster, the club secretly invited a Revlon representative to come and give them beauty advice. Docking’s play imagines that meeting, finding tension, catharsis, and even humour in the disparity between ‘Revlon’ and the four Welsh characters who represent the Wives. While based in fact, the play deviates from the actual meetings not only in this downscaling but also in that it does, inevitably, address the disaster. Yet director Geraint Owen tells me that the play is ‘not about Aberfan, even though it is about the grief,’ something he attributes to Docking’s choice to dramatise a meeting eight months distant from the disaster. Owen explains that residents of Aberfan have felt like the story has been abused previously by the press and popular media, but that Docking succeeds with The Revlon Girl because ‘he takes this small focus to tell a big tragedy,’ rather than attempting to stage the tragedy itself. The result is a sensitive and emotional play; the team recall one rehearsal in which each of the women performed their final monologues, and all ended up in tears hearing one another’s. ‘We haven’t rehearsed that bit too much,’ Owen explains, ‘because I think it’s so important that we don’t become immune to it.’ The team are very aware of the difficulties of staging a play about a disaster like this and are keen to do justice not only to Docking’s rendition of events but also to Aberfan itself.

It is clear that, for Owen, this has been a project with Welshness at its heart, and his familiarity with the disaster through institutional and individual study has been something he has passed on to the cast and crew. The team describe rehearsal chats during which Owen and the two Welsh actors – Meg Coslett (Rona) and Martha O’Neill (Jean) – have shared their experiences of Welsh culture, which fellow actors Amelia Hills (Marilyn) and Freya Ingram (Sian) have taken on board in their own performances, both in terms of accent and authenticity. Emily Webster plays the eponymous Revlon girl, a Bristolian character who accentuates the Welsh identity and personal trauma of the Wives by her contrast. Owen tells me that Docking is coming to see the play and that he has been very supportive: ‘his main piece of advice was to make the funny bits funny and the moving bits moving.’ The play is surprisingly not short of humour in the interactions between the characters, and the team agree that there is a relief in its ‘life goes on’ outlook, despite the trauma.


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Owen says he was keen to keep the performance stripped-back, working with sparse set and the large stage of Robinson’s Brickhouse Auditorium to keep the focus on the characters, whose interactions work well in a wide space, and to maintain some of the fringe energy of Docking’s play. ‘The main set feature is a drip from a skylight; it’s a technical challenge but it’s essential and symbolic of the neglect which led to the disaster,’ Owen explains. The Revlon Girl was written shortly after the Grenfell disaster, in the 50 year anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, and the team say the play feels fresh because it taps into the universal fury over a preventable disaster, particularly when official sources are to blame and face few consequences. They hope that, in staging the play, they may raise awareness of the Aberfan disaster, and keep questions of accountability open. The Revlon Girl will be a funny, moving, and eye-opening production.

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