By BRUCE DENNILL
The Revlon Girl / Directed by Steven Feinstein / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
It’s not often that the programme for an evening’s entertainment contains a picture of a trench filled with a dozen or more child-sized coffins, with a wall of grieving adults looming over the hole. But this is part of the historical background to this piece, set in the aftermath of a tragic disaster in1966, in which a massive heap of coal mine waste slid down a hill above the Welsh village of Aberfan, obliterating a large part of the settlement, including a school that was right in the landslide’s path.
The play opens with a sonic reconstruction of that moment which, if you’ve taken the time to read the background material in the programme beforehand, is profoundly chilling. The set is a featureless (but for a leaking pipe) room above a nameless bar – the meeting place for a group of bereaved mothers; vastly different women with the loss of a child as the appalling common denominator. For the evening in focus during the play, they are joined by a glamorous young lady from Revlon, the make-up company, conscripted to bolster the group’s collective self-image.
Neil Anthony Docking’s script is beautifully written. It unfolds at a carefully considered pace, in keeping with the generally conservative nature of the Aberfan women, who are conscious, among other things, of how frivolous it looks to be trying on make-up when the pervading mood in the town is still one of sadness and loss.
Different facets of the societal frame of mind are revealed via the personalities of the women involved. Sian (Michelle Douglas) is contained and caring, trying to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Marilyn (Julie-Anne McDowell) is quiet and anxious, the most obviously broken of the group. Rona (Heidi Mollentze) is feisty, foul-mouthed and argumentative, ready to push back against the status quo at any point. And Jean (Natasha Sutherland) is the vicar’s wife, aware of the politics in play as the authorities try to get the community back on an even keel.
The atmosphere on stage and in the theatre is often fraught: while the characters and audience members have a right, of course, to disagree with any of the perspectives proclaimed, there’s an abiding feeling that picking a fight with someone who’s lost a child is in extraordinarily bad taste (well, unless you’re Rona, occasionally). That is the position the Revlon girl (Marianthe Smart) finds herself in, uncertain of what she can add to the situation and panicky about saying or doing the wrong thing in a room full of unpredictable personalities.
This tension ratchets up when offence is taken or a misunderstanding spices things up, and dips when a character senses they’ve gone too far, or when empathy overrides all other concerns. The writing helps reveal the depth – and variety – of need that a person in such a situation must have, and how difficult that can be to understand, and in communicating that to the audience, the cast engage both your mind and your heart.
There’s a full house of strong performances from the cast, with Douglas arguably the pick of the bunch as she conveys her character’s wider range, venturing boldly into unexpected territory towards the end. Smart wears her character’s emotions vividly on her face throughout and Mollentze gives Rona a wanton crassness that inspires most of the laughs during the show, while also concealing the same fears and melancholy as her compatriots.
Impressively, given the subject matter, there is never any sappiness; just real people doing the impossible work of trying to recover from utter devastation. It’s thoughtful, crafted, deliberate theatre that will make an impression whenever it is staged.