21 October 1966. A small mining village called Aberfan in south Wales. An estimated 150,000 tonnes of colliery waste heaped high on the mountain overlooking the town collapsed and engulfed the Panglas Junior School and surrounding houses. 116 children aged between 7 and 10 were killed and 28 adults including four of the school’s teachers and their headmistress. If it had happened a day later, it would have been the weekend. A week later and it was half term. But it happened that Friday. For a moment, the media’s attention turned on the tiny town and then the spotlight swung away again and the town was left to pick up the pieces.
Eight months on, a representative from cosmetics company Revlon arrives in Aberfan, invited by a local support group as a diversion. Based on a true story, the play begins with her arrival in a leaky hall, her promise of lives brightened by lipstick bumping into women whose lives stopped the day their children didn’t come home.
Despite the tragic story, Neil Anthony Docking’s script is surprisingly, delightfully funny. The collision between the beautifully coiffeured, single, salaried Revlon rep with a fancy car from Bristol and a bunch of women who’ve gone to school together, married the men they tussled with in the playground and now had their own children. The story skips along, striking a lovely balance between local gossip, the leaky roof, the last cigarette and the bigger questions: why were the warnings about the unsafe structure of the mines ignored? How do you commemorate a disaster that should never have been allowed to happen? And how do you move on when you want time to rewind?
This is a brilliant piece of theatre. Director Maxine Evans makes great use of the downstairs space at Assembly Roxy. The costume design is spot on – the Revlon girl’s outfit with co-ordinated accessories is a highlight. And the performances are superb. Michelle McTernan, Bethan Thomas and Zoe Harrison are beautiful articulations of people coping with grief, carefully and compassionately depicted. The Revlon girl (Antonia Kinlay), Charlotte’s revelation that her altruism isn’t as superficial as it initially appears, is nicely controlled. And when the hapless Sian (Charlotte Gray) finally crumbles, it’s heartbreaking.
For all the fun, all the lipstick and all the courage and compassion in this play, it’s underpinned with rage. “It all comes down to money. It always does,” spits one of the women furiously. In the aftermath of the tragic circumstances surrounding the fire in Grenfell Tower, this is a message with resonance far beyond a tiny mining town. The human capacity to cope with circumstances that no human should have to. A funny, feisty, heart-wrenching story of how lipstick can look like hope.