By BRUCE DENNILL
The publicity material for Neil Anthony Docking’s play The Revlon Girl, staged at the Auto & General Theatre On The Square, describes, unsurprisingly, the background to the piece’s plot – the Aberfan mining disaster in a remote part of Wales in the 1960s. It’s likely only dedicated theatregoers who will initially understand that this is much emotion, intimacy and humour beyond that rather bleak set-up – and the team involved will be hoping that positive word of mouth kicks in early to help spread that message.
“It was a worry,” says Michelle Douglas, who plays Sian, once of a group of women who lost children in the disaster and gather weekly to vent their grief in ways they can’t elsewhere.
“We thought: ‘Will it transcend expectations?’ It’s about loss, grief, surviving grief, and hope – all universal feelings that people can relate to, including in South Africa, however far away we are from where the play takes place.
“Because of that, the play transcends race, sexual orientation and age. We’ve been amazed by that – wherever we’ve performed, we’ve had audience members, including big, strong, middle-aged men, crying their eyes out. It’s not about making you sad, though. It’s written in that very British way; with lovely humour.”
So it seems those early concerns have been short-circuited before your Johannesburg run, then?
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the intensity of the response,” agrees Douglas.
“We’re surprised and continually humbled by how well it’s been received. The script is a gift, though. It makes us look great. We’re totally inspired to keep doing it, and encouraged to take it to everyone we can. So many South Africans have this same fear; these pent-up emotions, and the play will allow you to cry and cry, but with a sense of hope. It goes back to what I think is the original purpose of theatre: catharsis.”
Douglas pauses to reflect.
“I really am amazed at the impact it has,” she says. “It’s very Eurocentric, starring five white women. It’s everything South Africa is not at the moment. But our black audiences have responded by weeping and sharing their own stories. I originally thought the Welsh accents of our characters might alienate people, but we went the purist way and it’s worked beautifully. We even asked actor friends to come and see if there were any problems with how it came across, but they said they’d just been carried away by the story.”
It does offer a sense of popular British narratives like the story of Billy Elliott and others, where there is beauty amidst the grime, and the contrast is what gives the tale its power. How are those aspects presented and kept top of mind on stage, with none of the big budget that a film might have to show visually recreate the disaster?
“The skill is in the writing,” explains Douglas.
“Neil researched the tragedy in huge detail, so everything that happens to the fictional characters is non-fiction. There are constant references to the tragedy, the town of Aberfan and to the mundanity of life as a miner’s wife in a poor community. And as our actors, our accents and the commonness of the way we look – period costumes, with horrid wigs – reminds people of where we are. Our director, Steven Feinstein, asked us to get into that emotional space, even before rehearsal. He made us listen to sound effects recreating the landslide, and asked us to imagine losing our own children. It wasn’t fun…
“There are some stock character elements – one lady is the obvious comic relief, for instance, and she helps lighten the tone when there is too much darkness.”
Grief – arguably the central theme of The Revlon Girl, is handled differently – and often ineffectively – by different people. How does the script make such a multi-faceted subject the anchor of the play?
“Each of the women is in a different stage of post-traumatic stress,” says Douglas.
“They handle what they’re going through in subtly distinct ways, which will be evident to anyone with any sensitivity. Anger, rage, suppression, passive aggression – there are so many unhelpful strategies.”
As an actor, how does all of that affect the headspace you need to get into?
“It’s tough,” concedes Douglas.
“I have to go there, but I can’t go to the absolute emotion every time – I’d be a wreck, and that’s not acting. I find trigger points along the way to get me there. And if you really listen to your fellow actors in a piece like this, the response is natural. All the actresses here do their job properly, and that allows me to feel what’s happening. That ensemble work is crucial: you’re not alone; everyone is going through it together.”
To the title of the play: make-up is, by definition, superficial, which is another clever contrast of themes. Nowadays, there is much talk of “self-care” and treating yourself, but in the context of this story, these women would likely have felt guilty about indulging in anything frivolous when society was expecting otherwise.
“Their context was extremely conservative, and chauvinistic” agrees Douglas.
“It was still very much a post-war feel, even if it was 20 years later. There was poverty. Everything was dowdy. It was a big risk to invite a make-up girl to help them to look and feel better. They had to keep it a secret, and fob her off as something less self-indulgent. There was a secretiveness to the whole affair. She became the catalyst for them revealing their pain and their sounding board once they started talking. One English critic decribes it this way: ‘It makes lipstick look like hope’, which I think is a beautiful way of describing it.”
This is a show that relies on the power of dialogue over action to convey all that goes on. What does that require of the actors?
“We need to make it as real as possible,” says Douglas.
“If we are not able to convey authenticity, we’re in trouble. So the style has to be natural; we have to remember that this is live. It’s also important that we handle the pacing well, and that we understand the power of stillness and silence – those gaps must be the right length. And we have to stay present. If we exit the play in any way, we will forget the intention and the emotion. Our training and experience is important. They’re needed to pull this off.”