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Brighton Year-Round 2022

The Revlon Girl

Brighton Little Theatre

Genre: Drama, Historical, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Brighton Little Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Tess Gill, Stage Manager Rosalind Caldwell

Set Design Steven Adams; Set Construction and Painting Chris Church, the Cast & Crew.

Lighting & Sound Design Steven Adams, Lighting /Sound Operation Bradley Coffey

Costumes, Bradley Coffey, Wigs/Hair Patti Griffiths, Props Glenys Stuart

Photography Miles Davies. Poster and Programme Design Steven Adams

With special thanks to Dee Forest for help in Welsh Accents, Mimi Goddard, Tina Sitko and Joanna Ackroyd for their support.

Till September 24th


Darkness, school sounds, a slither deafens to a crash. Lights. ‘It’s not just about the makeup’ the for-long-unnamed Revlon Girl declares in Neil Anthony Docking’s 2017 play of that title. She repeats it several times, as the almost unimaginable grief in the room turns it into a mantra.

By the last time she says it, she too has had something to say. The four South Wales women who summoned this young woman from Bristol listen.  It’s Aberfan, June 1967, and these young mothers who lost their children in the disaster that killed 116 and 28 adults, eight months earlier come together to mourn, laugh, confide, settle scores from their own childhood. And for various reasons, try to join the world again without breaking the taboo on mourning. They ask for a Revlon girl. That’s what we know. Over eighty-five minutes, Docking imagines the rest.

Brighton Little Theatre and director Tess Gill have struck gold in a play by a man who’s long meditated on the tragedy of the region he grew up in. Docking’s a screenplay writer, but his first play is pure theatre. Whist it nods to techniques seen in Conor McPherson’s The Weir – five people collecting in a near-rural-setting to tell dark, tragic but local stories to have it capped by a stranger – it’s based on truth and imagines something so impossible you realise only in this way can it be told at all: obliquely, after the event, five women trying on makeup.

We hear stage manager Rosalind Caldwell’s voice offstage only, as her character Jackie barks orders to Jodie Kenison’s Sian. Kenison rivetingly conveys a peacemaker always laughing nervously, over-anxious people-pleaser, welcoming Melissa Paris’ Revlon Girl who arrives baffled as the bucket collects water from the room below the Aberfan Hotel’s skylight; Sian forgets to let go of her guest’s hand.

Kenison pitches Sian just right: you know there’s a story, but there’s no easy transition. Only make-up can let it run. The reasons she above all wants a makeover are the most human ones: which you need to see.

She’s joined by Maisy Ruffels as withdrawn, psychic-consulting Marilyn huddling in a brown coat citing portents in her daughter’s last drawing. She’s obsessed by the children really having been in assembly, that they might yet come home. It’s a flinching portrayal and Ruffels refuses to overplay Marilyn’s PTSD or her obsession with portents, the spirit world, or her run-in with vicar’s wife Jean. Ruffels simply hunches Marilyn’s spirits close, showing Marilyn’s terrified they’ll evaporate. Most telling is the moment she declares: ‘I don’t want to look beautiful’ frozen in contrition for still being here.

Ruffels like Kenison and Paris makes her BLT debut, and in Ruffels’ case, her first performance in eight years. It’s worth mentioning as this is the most faultless small ensemble cast I’ve seen in a long time.

Docking’s built his play on an apparently inscrutable young woman here to do a job she volunteered for, and who twice almost gives up as her blow-in status is challenged by the most aggressive couple. First, Mandy-Jane Jackson’s furious constantly f-ing Rona, obsessed on getting everything back from a government, the coal board, the politicians and the local dignitaries for their continued failure, refusal to remove remaining slag heaps because of cost. In her final hollowing-out, Jackson burns into Rona’s part – who claims that Aberfan will be literally buried by bigger disasters.  Jackson’s trigger-personality Rona blazes with aggression fuelled by grief, a rage of pin-point political clarity.

When Paris’ emollient Revlon Girl comments ‘you must vote’ it releases a torrent of invective, aimed partly at the self-satisfied-seeming now eight-months pregnant  Jean, played by Lucie Thaxter. Last to appear, she seems the epitome of assured welcome, a less anxious host than Sian.

It soon becomes clear though that Jean assumes an authority based on class and religious conviction, married to a man of frightening rigidity. It’s all she has: her seemingly adamantine faith – itself besieged on the one hand by magic, on the other by bleak atheism – an act of crying out with her husband’s icy platitiudes till they warm.

Except Jean hardly mentions a living daughter whose life never measures to the bright son she lost, and her chilling suggestion that could she have swapped them she’d not have hesitated. Thaxter’s development of Jean is subtle too: from smiling coper, authoritative and snobby, to the desperate woman who denies her immanent child could ever replace the eldest one. It’s her challenge to atheist Rona of course that heats political tripwires, religious landmines, even to a degree class between them: and the Revlon girl accidentally trips.

From the virtuosity of Jackon’s Rona and the pent-up furies of Thaxter’s Jean, through the clutching at wisps Marilyn Ruffels shrugs into being, we’re drawn to the two characters we first see, trying so hard to smooth over the world for everyone else. Stories emerge as Paris’ Revlon – ultimately revealed to have a name – applies and commands make-up in litanies of looking beautiful that seem torn from a hymn-book. Ablutions take baptismal echoes, cleansing from layers of grief. Beyond comedies and disasters – particularly to Rona – when applied to Kenison’s Sian, it’s like an immersive release. We learn how others’ grief damages grieving, healing, tears apart what’s left.

Even then we’re not finished with stories. And there’s raucous laughter too (even from Paris’ character, whose loyalty and pratfalls centre on Sian), release where bonds between the four women who’ve infuriated each other from the age of twelve can renew, iron out. And the role of the girl from Bristol given a local habitation and a name.

Dee Forest’s help with Welsh pronunciation deserves special commendation in a cast where every character has life, each is performed faultlessly – ranged between laughter, rage and shuddering grief. Steven Adams supplies a consummate set – here a simple green-painted dingy old hotel room, lit steadily by him with those striking sound-effects at the start. A picture of the late queen amongst other pictures hangs brightly, with few other props needed bar a small eggshell-blue bench and bright Revlon accessories. That picture’s emblematic of the queen’s visit to Aberfan and the characters’ mention of this and ‘glowing skin’ takes on significance a day after her burial.

The Revlon Girl is a masterpiece of displacement as ritual. Though reviewing much this week, including the West End, I doubt it’ll match what I’ve seen here. One director commented tonight: ‘You don’t think BLT can better what they’ve just done. Then they do.’ Gill’s directed many fine shows for BLT, but she’s never bettered this. Outstanding.