The Revlon Girl comes to the end of its sold-out run at the Park Theatre. Daniel Perks catches up with director Maxine Evans to discover the ingredients to its success:
It’s a play about the aftermath of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, 51 years on from the tragedy that irreversibly changed the landscape of a village and a community. But The Revlon Girl is so much more than a series of horrifying events:
Maxine: Although the subject matter is Aberfan that is not the purpose of The Revlon Girl. Neil and I believe that it’s a real piece about real people that we can all relate to.
Don’t judge too quickly. Listen. Understand
Maxine: In many ways, we’ve become less tolerant, so quick to judge. When my dad died, I remember going into work and one of my friends, who I hadn’t seen in a while, asked me how my dad was. When I told her, she said “Why are you back in work? You don’t look like you’re grieving.” But what does grieving even look like?
Director Maxine Evans and I sit in the Park Theatre, a builder’s brew each. It feels natural and nostalgic, a natter between two old acquaintances about the last theatre show we saw or what’s happening on the soaps this week. I am reminded of gatherings during my childhood, growing up in the North West with the family all around the table for tea before sitting down to the evening’s telly of soaps, game shows or a classic sitcom.
The Revlon Girl has this same feeling of atmosphere and community. It’s unsurprising that both Maxine and writer Neil Anthony Docking have backgrounds in writing for soaps, back in the day when they were the focal point of the evening’s programming:
Maxine: What worried Neil and I about The Revlon Girl is that, as far as traditional theatre is concerned, it isn’t sexy. It’s an all-female, all-Welsh cast; although there is comedy in it, it’s basically a drama. We really didn’t know what to expect.
The fact that we have completely sold out everywhere we go proves to us that this kind of drama about truth & honesty, the little people, needs to happen now
When we worked on soaps – him on Emmerdale, me on Coronation Street and both of us on the reincarnation of Crossroads – we found that the stories needed to be based on characters and events that people at home could relate to, rather than murder-death-kill all the time.
Most of the people I know now that create soaps do not come from that background. They’re trying to give you stories about their perceptions of those lives. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
We didn’t want to go down a hyper-dramatic route – characters with no morals; young, beautiful women that sleep around. It doesn’t present reality, which I think is why reality TV has become so popular. We can’t write those kinds of characters anymore.
I was reading in Miro Magazine about Kwame Kwei-Armah’s new appointment as Artistic Director of The Young Vic, talking about diversity and changing the status quo. That to me is a breath of fresh air. A change is needed and it’s happening.
Maxine is grounded, humbled and genuinely shocked that The Revlon Girl has gained such momentum, achieved such success. I’m not. Having seen the show, I can instantly see how it has received such an emotional response.
I see a lot of theatre that is aesthetically exciting, or conceptually intriguing. I see a lot of theatre that runs into abstract, pushes at the boundaries of the form and explores previously uncharted territory. And that is joyful to watch.
The Revlon Girl is none of those things. The Revlon Girl puts the characters, the people and the narrative at the centre. It is ultimately a piece of exceptionally crafted storytelling. It’s real, it’s emotional and it’s intense. For 90 minutes, you are right in the moment with these five women – you feel their pain, you share their laughter and cry their tears. Just like in the soaps when they were at their peak, Maxine and Neil give us people that we can imagine talking to, people we can imagine being. Our hearts hurt as much as theirs do.
Maxine: Theatre is very much about the spoken word for me – the beautiful world of conversation. What do people have to say, or not say, to each other?
The way in which I direct is very similar to the way in which Neil writes – how do I want the audience to feel in this moment? In film & TV, there often isn’t time for the magic moments – the scripts are full of dialogue and you’re trying to fit everything in. The beauty of theatre is that nobody says to you it has to fit a certain time. But you’ve got to have a good story to tell – if you have one, you can tell it in any medium.
It feels like you’re giving a voice to those whose voices are not heard. And they can be anyone
Maxine and Neil are completely in sync as a writer-director partnership – it’s one of the essential ingredients that makes The Revlon Girl so impactful. Clear vision comes from the top:
Maxine: If the creatives are not as one, you feel the split in the rehearsal room and it’s an unsafe environment for the actors to explore. It won’t ever come to fruition. The process has to be collaborative – if you’re not all together then you don’t have the safety net for the actors.
But the interaction between actors is equally crucial, it’s the magic that happens on stage. In The Revlon Girl, it’s all about the moments when people don’t speak and look at each other. They’ve been carefully choreographed so that the audience don’t miss them.
The final piece to the creative puzzle here is also the subtle design – very simple, but effective:
Maxine: With the subject matter, with the level of emotion that is reached on stage, it would feel in bad taste to do anything other than light that room and let them be. I wanted a sense of a storm disappearing at the end, something subtle. But I wanted the set to feel unsafe, the sense that it might fall over when the audience sits down.
The only other design feature I asked for was a drip in a bucket – that’s the soundscape. Sometimes it disappears, but when there are silences it echoes and brings you back. It’s a ticking clock, a reminder.
We try not to let on that the drip is a part of the show – I wanted a pre-set to see what people would do. In life, rather than being secure in the knowledge that other people have told us it’s safe, we need to get up and question.
Would somebody notice something unsafe, and if so, would they say anything?
Despite playing to packed houses in Wales, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 and now at London’s Park Theatre, Maxine is reluctant to rest on her laurels.
Maxine: We would want it to go to New York; we would love to do a Northern tour; we have to go back to Wales or they’ll kill us! Then, we would love to make a film. We were really taken by films like Carnage or Twelve Angry Men that stayed true to the play.
I think it’ll only feel real if it has a life after this, if we can take it somewhere else