Follow us as we talk to a selection of of the Welsh shows travelling to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Here we speak to the producer of Pontardawe Arts Centre’s ‘The Revlon Girl’.
Tell us about your show.
Based on real events following the Aberfan Disaster of 1966 in which 144 people were killed (116 of them children; most perishing at their school desks), ‘The Revlon Girl’ tells the uplifting true story of a group of bereaved mothers who met in the disaster’s aftermath to talk, cry and even laugh without feeling guilty. At one of these meetings, they looked at each other and admitted how much they felt they’d let themselves go and- afraid of being judged frivolous- they secretly arranged for a representative from Revlon to come and give them beauty tips. The action takes place on a rainy Tuesday night in a room above the Aberfan Hotel.
And the reason we think it important to tell, is simple: it is one of those stories- and one of those events- so unthinkable and so incomprehensibly tragic, that it’s hard to believe it actually happened. And not just that; but that it happened in the last 50 years.
‘The Revlon Girl’ is essentially two stories: the first is where 150,000 tonnes of mining waste slipped from its site on a mountain high above a school wiping out a generation of children in a Welsh mining village (and the failures that led to it) and the other story is of a group of bereaved mothers who made a quiet, yet valiant, attempt to regain something of themselves. Both stories tell us something fundamental about human nature – from the gritty to the heroic- and each serve as a reminder of the corrosive and sometimes catastrophic effect of indifference- not just on society but also on individuals. If there was ever a story that encapsulates what happens when ‘the little people’ are ignored, this is the one. Some regard ‘The Revlon Girl’ as a timely fable for how elitist attitudes towards those ‘beneath them’ can lead to political upheaval on the one hand (seen recently in US & European politics) and to chilling disaster on the other. (Indeed, at the time of writing we are feeling the play’s resonance and weight in a recent disaster in the UK – a fire in a West London tower block- that has stark parallels with the Aberfan disaster; such as staggering negligence, of social inequality, of class indifference, of unheeded warnings, technological hubris and how the media (then as now) have come under fire for sensationalising human suffering.
So in one respect it’s important because it is a reminder – for us now- of how badly things can turn out if you blindly trust those in authority or turn a blind eye to the daily plight of others. At the play’s heart however is a simple, compelling and universal tale about people; a people who, though already beaten, found the strength to carry on. The characters run the emotional gamut: from resilience to courage to humour to desperation to stubbornness to grief and, thankfully, towards hope. And it should be said that it is a story that we don’t see that often – a story about women, told by women. The play is unique in so far as it goes beyond how women are perceived in terms of their roles or their looks (their ‘beauty’, their ‘worth’) to how they should or shouldn’t grieve their children, what kind of jokes they tell, how they pick their fights or how they are defined- not by themselves, but by those around them.
It would be fair to say that the response to the play has, thus far, been overwhelming; but not necessarily in the way you might first imagine. It is true the play enjoyed sell-out performances during last year’s tour (many of these in venues as large as 600 seats) but I also mean ‘it’s been overwhelming’ in another way: as mentioned, we toured the play last year in Wales (coinciding with the 50th Anniversary of the disaster) and performed within a stone’s throw of where the actual disaster happened. We knew that in such venues the audience would be made up of people directly affected (families of lost children or indeed survivors themselves) and naturally we felt a degree of trepidation (simply because you don’t know how people would react to a play that not only tackles a sensitive subject head on – and believe me, in some parts of Wales this subject is still very sensitive- but one that also contains a great deal of humour). We were overwhelmed not just by how enthusiastically it was received- standing ovations and the such like (which is as much down to the actors as anything else)- but also by how the play affected people on a personal level. For example, following a show in Blackwood, the writer was confronted in the foyer by a woman in her forties who, without a word, flung her arms around him and began to sob uncontrollably. It transpired that her father had attended the disaster and had dug children out of the school, but who – so affected by the experience- never spoke of it to his family. It was a dark and remote place that her father kept from them all. He had since died and the woman felt that she had finally ‘seen’ what her father saw and, consequently, felt closer to him.
At the other end of the spectrum, and during its first low-key outing in London, the play had a remarkable reaction from those from outside Wales, and indeed outside the UK. In particular, we found European and American audience members who said how deeply affected they were and how they found the play resonating in stories from their home countries and, in some cases, were indignant (and even angry) that they had never heard of the disaster. After learning what had transpired they asked us “how could it happen!?”
Tell us about your company.
Aside from all the other things they do daily at Pontardawe Arts Centre – and I’ve spent quite a bit of time there over the past year or so, and let me tell you they do a lot – they are committed to new work in a way not generally seen in my experience. For a start, they provide the essential things- without which, it’s impossible to get new ideas off the ground: practical things such as rehearsal room, technical support, expertise and sometimes money, but almost more important than all that is that they give you the ‘space’ to develop new work. And by ‘the space’ I mean just that- the room, the freedom, the latitude, and a presence that says, ‘we’re here when you need us’. (Perhaps another way of describing it is that they see the work and the people as entities in themselves- rather than an extension or a brand or a product of PAC – and therefore have that fruitful quality that organisations such as the BBC once had, which is seeing their role as a launch pad, or a conduit, or as the means to make stuff happen. It’s for that reason, I think, that makes the place truly eclectic: they just want you to get on with it!). At the same time of course, they’re not afraid to push; and a good example of this is to explain the evolution of ‘The Revlon Girl’.
In the summer of 2015 Maxine (Evans) and I staged a short version of the play at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden- just for a week- and Angie (Dickinson) made the schlepp from Pontardawe to London to see it. I didn’t know Angie, I didn’t meet her on the night, or that week and just having got through the short run I wasn’t really thinking too much about what to do next. However, within days Angie was in touch and asking me all the things I wasn’t thinking about: ‘What are you doing with it next? When are you touring it? Why aren’t you touring it?!’ (the inference being that I would’ve had to have sustained a severe head injury otherwise). From that point onwards (and I honestly can’t remember if we ever made anything as cogent as a ‘plan’) we were going places with the play- first a terrifically successful tour in Wales during the 50th Anniversary of the Aberfan Disaster and in 2017 Edinburgh and beyond. And all along the way literally everyone in the building has been involved in making it a success – from designing and building totally new bits of kit to helping us navigate the Wales theatre landscape to hand-to-hand marketing to the box office (figuratively) dragging people off the street to see it.
And this is perhaps an area we have the most in common. As a company [Nearside] we are very keen on ‘bums-on-seats’. Of course we are as committed to quality and originality or artistic integrity as everyone else – but success in these areas is entirely subjective, often self-proclaimed and mean, for the most part, very little. So what really means something to us is that, no matter what it is we create, it’s nothing if people don’t see it! And this is an ethos I think we share with PAC- and something that is so fundamental to the partnership we’ve developed is that we’ve pretty much never spoken about it (in fact, I think I’m just realising that for the first time now). So it is the audiences that we’re always thinking about- and the bigger and wider the better- and I think this is because for us both we don’t think that artistic originality and mainstream appeal are mutually exclusive. That is not to say that high audience attendance indicates artistic quality- but it can, especially with original work, indicate if and how well an idea or a story has connected with people. Be it ‘Calendar Girls’ or ‘The Full Monty’ or ‘An Inspector Calls’ to ‘All Our Sons’ – all these popular productions were once original productions, unknown to most people- but there was something about them that struck a chord and has since endured. So in other words, we’re always trying to get to the heart of what it is we’re meant to be doing; and that is telling a story (and a story is best summed up by E.M.Forster as ‘The King died then the Queen died is an incident; the King died then the Queen died of a broken heart is a story’) and, moreover, telling it to a large number of people.
To some extent we have a blueprint with ‘The Revlon Girl’ (though both Maxine and I have worked in some of the highest rating TV shows in the UK and it’s essentially the same game) whereby a challenging story is told powerfully by some incredible actors in a way that means something to people. And by ‘mean something’ I don’t mean the relevance of the subject itself, but the ideas and emotions it evokes. It is the ‘truth’ of a work that will give it appeal and an enduring quality (and not who’s in it, or what the ‘issue’ is, or telling the people the reason why the play is ‘important’). We’ve learned and observed some simple rules over the years and especially employed them during last year’s tour, and we saw audiences come out in remarkable numbers. And it really could have so easily gone the other way; this isn’t necessarily a story that would have appeal were it not done as well. But clearly the show connected with people- and that’s because it was always about the story and not just the event (see Forster!)
There’s probably more to it than that of course, but I hope that gives you a flavour…’
What does the Edinburgh Fringe mean to you?
Though a story about a small village in a small country to an unsung group of women 50 years ago, it’s very much a tale for our time and our world now. It is a universal story with enduring themes – and for that reason we know it has an international audience. It almost goes without saying that the play would have strong appeal to audiences in the United States (along with Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand et al) but we feel there’s an equally strong audience in those countries where English is already a strong second language (such as Sweden and Denmark) but also where English is increasingly being used. Having said that, so passionate are we about the play- we would relish the prospect of translating the play and mounting a new production in another country.
Anyway, the point is- and to answer your question about what Edinburgh means to us: there is no better place to start, and no better place to take ‘The Revlon Girl’ towards the world stage- than Edinburgh.
THE REVLON GIRL
Pontardawe Arts Centre
Dates: 3-28 August
Time: 13.00 (1hr15mins)
Venue: Assembly Roxy