It is never only lipstick


THIS wretched baby: Jean in pink (Natasha Sutherland) with Rona (Heidi Mollentze) and Marilyn, behind (Julie-Anne McDowell), trying to make sense of brokenness in Revlon Girl. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

THE WELSH VILLAGE of Aberfan in October of 1966 weathered a catastrophe worse than anyone could have imagined. At 09:15 in the morning of an otherwise ordinary but wet day, a colliery spoil tip slid down the mountain and drowned a primary school in a 12m-deep avalanche of shale and slurry. One hundred and sixteen children and 28 adults were buried alive. It is in the wake of this horror that Neil Anthony Docking’s play Revlon Girl is set. It’s an astonishingly fine piece which embraces the complexity of mourning in a way that will reach you far more personally than a 1960s tragedy you may read of, or remember.

So here we find ourselves in the ominously leaking room of a community centre, a couple of weeks after the disaster. The Revlon girl (Marianthe Smart) has tottled in, on her high heels and in her expensive car, to do a community talk, with a bid to lighten the plight of the women of Aberfan. Is she equipped for the task? She has a suitcase of powders and shadows, creams and concoctions, but a knowledge that whatever she says may well be taken amiss.

Sian (Michelle Douglas), Marilyn (Julie-Anne McDowell), Rona (Heidi Mollentze) and Jean (Natasha Sutherland) are the women who begin to trickle into the space to see what Revlon cosmetics can do for them. And maybe to reach for a patch of fresh air in the dank and sad world they now occupy. Each woman is an Aberfan mother. Each carries the most terrible story on her cardigan-draped shoulders, and each responds differently to the rawness of being bereft.

Like projects of the ilk of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the catastrophe is presented to the audience not through images of corpses and brokenness, but rather through the words and stories of those who survived it or who harbour loss because of it. This is a play about the psychological reaction to terrible things and a sudden state of mourning. And with a prologue that is a devastating sound-scape, the performances are so close to the bone that you understand these women from the inside. What would you do in these circumstances? Would you go all catatonic? Maybe you’d swear and laugh demonically and inappropriately? Perhaps you’d weep in silence, while your marriage falls apart? Maybe you stop taking physical care of yourself. Beautifully written and directed with a sophisticated edge and an understanding of tears and laughter, this is text heavy, exceptional theatre that will make you hold onto every word.

While the Welsh accent of these ladies sometimes compromises the clarity of the language, as the play unfolds, so do you become attuned to their manner of speech: it’s similar to the challenge of watching a foreign-language work with surtitles. But as the play unfolds, you also hold a mirror up to who you are in the equation – how do you remember those you’ve lost? What are the tiny gems and delicate triggers of memory that you will never let go of?

You may have seen Douglas in various roles over the last couple of years, but it is delightful to see her embrace Sian with a sense of authority that raises her own professional stakes with quiet magnificence, giving great dignity to an ordinary wife of an ordinary miner.

Revlon Girl is another unequivocal theatrical victory for the Auto & General Theatre on the Square. Highlighted by the performance of McDowell, in which even the character’s tear driven intake and outflow of breath has been taken into consideration, this is a tight and convincing tale told with a full heart and a capacity for the horror of loss.

  • Revlon Girl is written by Neil Anthony Docking and directed by Steven Feinstein. It features design by Oliver Hauser (lighting), Linda Urmson (costumes), Loren Nel (sound) and Steven Feinstein Lawrence Joffe, Gavin Joffe and Loren Nel (set) and is performed by Michelle Douglas, Julie-Anne McDowell, Heidi Mollentze, Marianthe Smart and Natasha Sutherland at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until December 1.

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