Theatre in Wales

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Audience in Tears

The Best of Touring Theatre

The Revlon Girl- October Sixty Six Productions , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , October 14, 2016
The Best of Touring Theatre by The Revlon Girl- October Sixty Six Productions The Western Mail of October 7th listed a dozen events that marked the commemoration of fifty years since October 21st 1966. It was led by the Mererid Hopwood-Karl Jenkins cantata of memory performed the following day at the Wales Millennium Centre. The newspaper omitted a photography exhibition “the Days After” at the National Library. It is in truth a collection of some moral ambiguity.

The photographer was in New York when the news unfurled. He arrived in Aberfan on 29th October and stayed until Christmas Day. He makes claim to a higher moral ground in that he stayed on when the rest of the media had departed. The exhibition locates itself well and truly in Susan Sontag territory, particularly “Regarding the Pain of Others.” Thus a survivor child is pictured within a cemetery, the adjacent headstone considerably larger than the small infant. A white horse is ridden across a field against the backdrop of a colliery valley with wisps of winter mist. Both images are composed in strict obedience to the principle of the Golden Mean. The making of aesthetic imagery in the aftermath of unassuagable pain is not really for me. There is honour at times in silence.

Owen Sheers is now one of the regularly most interesting voices of Wales on the public role of the artist. Nonetheless, he writes that “the prospect of trying to shape dramatically and render the nature of the village's loss seemed emotionally daunting and fraught with difficulty.” He is quite right. But Neil Docking, author of “the Revlon Girl” is to the contrary. “You tackle a subject head-on” he said on Radio Wales on 21st September. At a post-show event in Aberystwyth he says the same in response as to whether the enormity of the subject might daunt the writer. It is in fact more complex. The directness may send the dramatist to encounter the women and men from history but then the making is all to do with the application of artistry.

The social media page of Pontardawe Arts Centre records many a testament to the play's emotional impact on a generation who were not witness at the time. As cast member Charlotte Gray said on radio “we did a bit of it at school.” The same emotional impact is to be heard in Aberystwyth. The pain of loss from four mothers on stage evokes audible snuffles from among the darkened rows of seats.

“The Revlon Girl” succeeds for three main reasons. The first is formal. Terri Dwyer's Charlotte, the role of the title, is the outsider, located in actual fact, who acts as catalyst to the four mothers eight months after the disaster. Docking provides with dramaturgical finesse a revelation that bonds her to the others. The most elusive aspect of writing for performance is the making of metaphor. In this case, with high compositional skill, the Revlon occupation elides into metaphor for the lives of Sian, Marilyn, Jean and Rona.

Director Maxine Evans has taken on the role of Jean. The play is so structured that each character steps to the centre for a sequence of jagged emotion. The characters are delineated for contrast, each impelled on her separate course of action. In the quality of the playing there is not a hair's breadth between Michelle McTernan, Bethan Thomas and Charlotte Gray.

Eleri Lloyd's design makes an upstairs room of the Aberfan Hotel into a dark interior space, intimating the mountain, with a single unadorned light and the ominous drip of water. The music, sparely used but of utmost effectiveness, is credit of Jonathan Gulliford. But this is the work of Maxine Evans and Neil Docking with the emphasis on work. The research required the reading of thousands of pages of the official court transcripts. Personal meetings included the late Lord Howe of Aberavon. “Why do you want to make a play of this?” he asked. The answer is given by the makers themselves. Just as funerals were once attended only by men the voices of women are largely absent from the official record. “We hear the voices of the little people” writes Docking “not those...already recorded by history who were heard at the time.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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