Pontardawe Arts Centre has been awarded a grant from The Arts Council of Wales to take this critically acclaimed production, written by Neil Anthony Docking and directed by Maxine Evans, to the Edinburgh Festival this August.
The show will open at ‘The Assembly Roxy’ and run throughout the Festival from 2nd-28th August 2017.
So afraid that people would think them frivolous, they secretly arranged for a representative from Revlon to come and give them a talk on beauty tips.
Answers given by Neil Anthony Docking- writer and producer
What was the inspiration for this performance?
It was a few lines in a book written in the 1970s that discussed the psychological effects of a truly horrible tragedy that happened in 1966- a few lines that, even on the page, seemed like a throwaway point to illuminate a larger one. But for me, those few lines just leapt off the page...
And I realized I’d found a way of telling the story of the Aberfan Disaster.
Fifty years on, the Aberfan Disaster is still difficult to believe. It occurred in a tiny Welsh mining village in 1966 when a tip comprising of colliery waste- one of seven tips sited on the mountain above the village of Aberfan- slipped suddenly one morning at 9.15am. 150,000 tonnes of rock, debris, mud & water hurtled down the mountainside in a terrifying avalanche traveling at 30ft per second.
First it engulfed a farmhouse, killing all the occupants; then it hit a disused canal, tore up a water main, demolished a row of houses, hit the outer walls of a senior school and ploughed directly into a junior school. 28 adults and 116 children were killed; most of them perishing at their school-desks. It happened on the 21st October 1966- a Friday- the last day before half-term.
In the aftermath of the disaster the Tribunal established that the tip should not have been there in the first place and repeated warnings from the school, the headmistress, district officials and local people went unheeded.
Worse was to come when demands to have the remaining 6 tips cleared were met with a recalcitrant Labour government and an immovable National Coal Board. Between them, they made a deal to fund some of the cost but with the rest meant to come from ‘local interests’. They meant the thousands of donations made to the Disaster Appeal Fund.
In an impossible position, the village agreed that £150,000 (approx £1.7Million now) should be taken and used to make up the shortfall in the Government finances and clear the remaining tips.
Like many Welsh people of my generation and background, I grew up with this story. My father worked in the steelworks and my grandfather was a miner, so the story was particularly close to us.
Having said that, anyone over the age of forty will know about it- it was a global news-story at the time- as it was one of the first disasters to be covered on television in the 1960s. Which is why the disaster appeal fund received so many donations and caused such outrage when money was taken to clear up the mess that belonged to the nationalized coal authority and the government.
In 1997, the new Labour government returned that donated money to the village and the Disaster Fund. At this time, I was working as a writer on a TV drama series and suggested to the Head of Drama that the Aberfan Story kind of had an ‘ending’ – at least there was a point of closure- and that we should do it; mainly because it was, and is, a story worth telling.
He refused point blank; telling me that this story could never be told- such was the strength of feeling and the sensitivity of the subject matter; nobody would want the idea and I should drop it. So naturally, for a person in my position, I had little choice but to ignore him completely and begin researching the subject for myself.
I planned a television screenplay that would take in the scale of this story and chart one of the worst disasters in British history. It took a few years but- once finished- the screenplay was turned down by every broadcaster in the UK.
So that was that.
Except it wasn’t: when researching the subject I had come across a few lines in a book by Joan Millar that discussed the social and psychological effects- and I read about a group of bereaved mothers who used to meet each week to talk, to cry and even laugh without feeling guilty. At one of the meetings the women looked at each other and admitted how much they felt they’d let themselves go.
But afraid of being judged frivolous they had done little about it; and so- secretly- they arranged for a representative from Revlon to come and give them beauty tips.
And in truth this story made me chuckle: in all the thousands of pages of harrowing detail I’d read over the years – from Tribunal minutes to testimony given by parents; from teachers’ witness statements to secret Government papers made public- this was the first time I had smiled: simply because I wondered how it must have felt to be the Revlon girl.
The disaster was a world-wide event; it was incomprehensibly tragic- 116 children had died; so many people had suffered terrible loss and, at some point following the tragedy, a young woman had been asked to go and give a make-up demonstration to the mothers of the dead children. In her mind, she must have thought: “What the hell am I going to say to these people?!”.
And that was the inspiration. That was my starting point. In time, I had a play. And within it I realized I’d stumbled upon something that should have been obvious to me from the start: in order to tell a very big story, sometimes you have to make it very small.
Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?
No, not really- well, at least not in the way it has come to mean. Performance- theatrical or otherwise- should be less concerned with discussing ideas and more concerned with telling a story. For through a good story, ideas can be formed. (Provided the story is a good one and is in possession of, literally, a point!).
And not just about the events being played out in front of you either; but rather, allowing you to form ideas about your own life. A story can and should allow those watching to form ideas about the way they live, how they deal with their circumstances or how they might have responded to the same tragedy. In many respects the basic function of a story should be to tell us who we are.
Through a story we should first find meaning. An idea is either judged ‘good’ or ‘bad’- but life isn’t the same. Rather than knowing ‘is my life good?’ or ‘is my life bad?’ most people would prefer to know ‘what does it mean?’.
For example, The Revlon Girl is first and foremost a true story. The event on which it is based- the women who met- is real; the facts as reported actually happened; we follow the stories of the fictional women on stage, set against the terrible tragedy that has befallen them. However, the themes the play explores - those elements in a story that stand apart from the events themselves; that allows us all to get to some fundamental truths- are to do with grief, beauty, indifference, judgment and indeed the resilience and frailty human spirit.
These things apply to everyone equally but also differently. Of course these things are also ideas in themselves but without a story – a series of connected events that moves through time- they are abstract notions that do nothing- and are essentially inert and devoid of meaning. How much easier (and lazier) would it have been for me to write a play that expressed the central idea that said: ‘Isn’t it terrible that this thing happened’? And the answer would be ‘of course, yes!’; but that’s all there would be to it.
By telling the story in the way we do, the audience gets to understand something beyond the tragedy. (E.M. Forster once wrote: ‘The King died and the Queen died is an incident. The King died and the Queen died of a broken heart is a story…’).
Almost more importantly, through the story an audience can become ‘awakened’ to the reasons why such tragedies occurs and perhaps become ‘armed’ against a similar tragedy happening again. (Though there is no coal industry in the UK anymore, there are other things such as fracking and the nuclear industry- two areas that are potentially hazardous; especially if we wholly trust assurances of those in authority, as Aberfan did).
However, if all the play was concerned with was discussing the idea that ‘this should not happen again’ then that would be fine but I wouldn’t expect the audience to care whether it happens again. And that’s the difference with ‘The Revlon Girl’- you really do care about what happened and in particular you care about these women. Moreover you care about what happened to them subsequently (or, to put it another way, where the story ends). In other words, they care what happens to them after the lights go down and the play is over. The story does that, not the ideas.
And a story is not the same as an event. It’s not enough to write about an event because it’s dramatic, or historic or just plain interesting. A story should be so much more. For example, the story of the Titanic is told not because a big ship sank, but because the rich were allowed to get into the lifeboats. That’s the meaning; that’s what the audience takes away.
With something like ‘Calendar Girls’ the meaning isn’t that women took off their clothes, but in the reason why they did it. ‘The Revlon Girl’ is the same- it’s not because children died at the hands of a colliery tip that gives it meaning, it’s that people knew the tip was slipping. It’s that element- along with how the characters react to it- that gives the story meaning.
To feel something, you have to identify with characters, not with ideas. You have to have empathy and sympathy, antipathy and disgust towards and for the characters presented on stage- their dilemmas their fears their loves- which become your dilemmas, your fears and your loves. And through that you can truly get to an idea. Something that people take away with them and into their own lives.
And that’s when any meaningful discussion of an idea can begin.
And that’s more difficult to pull off than it sounds- because what you need to make people feel something is really good actors, an imaginative director, a blinding script and yes, a good story.
So I guess what I’m saying (and probably could have said it quicker) if you really want to discuss ideas then become a philosopher, or an engineer or even a politician. If you want to tell stories, become a dramatist
How did you become interested in making performance?
If you mean generally, then it’s a really good question that is almost impossible for me to know for sure. But if I was to take a stab at it, then I guess it’s a cliché I’m afraid (and not to labour the earlier question) but I think it comes down to an over-riding need to tell you a story - which I think it would be fair to say goes for everyone else involved in ‘The Revlon Girl’.
I suspect in part it comes from when I was a kid: there were those in my family who liked nothing better than to tell a joke or a funny story or something dramatic that happened. And it didn’t matter how big the audience was (but naturally the bigger the better).
So perhaps it’s even more than telling a story- I think I have a need to entertain: it’s clearly not enough for me just to tell you the story, I have to grab you with it and not let you go! So naturally that means tapping into all kinds of emotions. Which probably explains the shape and style of The Revlon Girl and why it has appealed to so many people thus far.
I think it comes down to the fact that- in order to tell the story effectively- we’d have to make it, yes- heartbreaking, but also at times very funny (in fact, so many comments from audiences have been ‘it’s an emotional rollercoaster’). This allows the audience ‘in’ so to speak and under the skin of these characters; simply because they are all 3-dimensional and go through a whole range of emotions: so they suffer loss, but also triumph; they feel pain but also hope; they know despair but also courage.
Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
Our basic approach to everything we do is to give the audience the very best: not just in terms of the script or story, but also the acting, the direction, the music, the lighting- everything. People are not only giving us their time, but their money and so they deserve our hardest work and our best efforts.
They also deserve something memorable. And to get that right we know that we have to put the work in. (The artistic approach to each show or project will always be different and in truth we never know what that is until we, well, know what it is).
In terms of approaching ‘The Revlon Girl’ we are aiming – and at the risk of sounding horribly pretentious- for a kind of ‘purity’. And by that I mean an authenticity; a faithfulness, if you like; we want audiences to feel like they’re watching the real thing. This play is at times- like its subject- extremely raw; and therefore anything extraneous, or gimmicky would be wrong. So in the same way the story is raw and unflinching, so is the production.
It really all comes down to the lines and the acting, and immersing the audience in what’s going on.
You often hear playwrights eager for their audiences to ‘think’. That’s too passive for me; I want them to ‘feel’. I want them to laugh and cry- I want them to cheer with triumph and shake their heads in despair.
So everything we do is towards that end. Everything about the show is about that. The actors are some of the best I’ve ever worked with- and their commitment is sometimes overwhelming.
They really do put their guts into each performance. It’s true- audiences come out of a performance exhausted- but so do the cast. (And I’ve seen them do two shows in a day).
Finally, it would be fair to say that this production really does appeal to women. I don’t think it was a conscious thing, and not to say that it doesn’t appeal to men, but it certainly does resonate with women.
Also, it’s a show that has fantastically strong female roles – 5 of them- something that many female actors tell me (and tell newspapers) is sorely lacking in theatre and film. So I’m very proud to be able to say that a) it appeals to women but also b) that it’s a strong piece for a strong actresses.
Does the show fit with your usual productions?
In many ways, yes: not so much in the subject matter but in our approach to production (i.e. work hard, give your best, offer something memorable). Our background is in all kinds of work: from network TV drama shows, to online comedies to independent British film. But this is the first ‘based on a true story’ project we’ve undertaken which brings with it a special set of considerations.
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I hope that the audience will remember the reason why they go to the theatre in the first place. I hope that they’ll emerge with a feeling of hope, but know that sometimes it’s hard earned. I hope that they’ll come out of it knowing much more about the tragedy on which the play is based, but will feel like they’ve absorbed it naturally- almost by accident- rather than being lectured to. Ultimately, I want them to think it was worthwhile.
What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
I know this is stating the obvious but, aside from picking the very best people for this production and ensuring that everyone gives the show their all, it is also worth mentioning that, from the very beginning, were have always been mindful of the fact that, for many people (especially those under the age of 40), the Aberfan Disaster would be something new to them.
The play is therefore presented in a way that allows the audience to learn about the event, but not ‘factually’ as if they were sitting in a history lesson. These things instead are part of the action and the story as it unfolds. In other words, the ‘history’ behind the play is revealed through the characters (who essentially carry the history with them.
Anyone who’s enjoyed Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ will no doubt say that in the same way you don’t have to know anything about the Salem Witchhunts to understand ‘The Crucible’. It’s all there for you as part of the play. It’s fair to say however that, later, people can find out more about that and indeed McCarthyism later if they wish).
And on the point of the audience experience beyond the play it is perhaps saying a few words of how this has worked previously and how I think it’ll work now (which kind of brings us full circle and back to your first question regarding the discussion of ideas).
It’s perhaps first worth mentioning that we toured this play in Wales during the 50th Anniversary of the disaster- and very close to where it happened. In fact, many of our audiences were personally involved in what happened so we were always mindful of how it might be received. And amongst that anxiety was always the feeling that we had to do the story justice and tackle the subject head on- and have those other things that are very real in such circumstances such as humour, anger, pettiness, self-interest, warmth and forgiveness.
[We held discussions (Q&As) following some of the Wales performances and will do so again if we can].
So beyond the story of Aberfan itself- there are issues within the play that resonate beyond the disaster itself and indeed the 1960s, and tell us something about today and the current political landscape.
Anyone interested in Brexit (or perhaps even Scottish Independence) should come see this play. And by ‘interested’ I mean the people who are perhaps scratching their heads as to the reasons why and how certain communities throughout the UK responded and voted. And this isn’t a partisan ‘for or against’ thing: it’s more about ‘how we got to this point’.
Whatever your views are, one thing you can be sure of: ‘The Revlon Girl’ acutely reminds us of our industrial past, and one that is still present in many communities- working class ones- that feel that they sacrificed much but nonetheless have since been forgotten. And actually it’s more than just being ‘forgotten’ it’s more to do with the ideas of indifference and value. Of course the play doesn’t make this point explicitly – in fact it was written way before the current spate of referenda- but as the play itself moves through current events, it’s kind of taking on a special meaning. In other words, as the political landscape changes, so does the play and I’d be very interested to hear what audiences have to say about what they experience this time.
“Having experienced the huge impact made by The Revlon Girl on its recent Welsh tour the entire team at Pontardawe Arts Centre are delighted that the Arts Council have selected the play to represent Wales in Edinburgh this year. We are equally excited that we have enabled the play to be viewed on an international stage: what better way to promote Wales abroad than through its creative artists” Angie Dickinson (Artistic Director – Pontardawe Arts Centre)
“We are absolutely thrilled with the backing from the Arts Council Wales and with the chance to work with everyone from Pontardawe Arts again. It’s such a difficult but important subject and a story we think is worth telling beyond the borders of Wales. If the reaction in Edinburgh is half of what it was in Wales last year it’s going to be really something. Obviously there are 1000s of shows playing at Edinburgh but we think this one has the potential to really stand out. The backing we’ve had gives us a real head-start.
It’s a difficult subject and a terrible episode in Wales’s history, but it’s also a compelling human story told in a unique way. As anyone who saw it last year will know, it’s a story that is about overwhelming loss but it’s also a story of amazing courage, hope and humour. I think it’ll surprise Edinburgh audiences- wherever they come from in the world.” Maxine Evans (Director)