by Neil Anthony Docking

directed by Maureen Roberts

Burnley Garrick


On 21st October, 1966, 144 people, 116 of them children, lost their lives, in what was one of the disasters that rocked the nation – the Aberfan Disaster when a village school was engulfed with coal slurry from a mining tip above Pentglas Junior School.


I was brought up fewer than 40 miles from Merthyr Tydfil, and in the late ‘50s I lived and worked in Merthyr, not 5 miles from the village of Aberfan, so I knew the area fairly well.


Based on a true story of two real events, the Aberfan disaster and, in its aftermath, when a group of mothers who had lost their children in the school, would meet to have a talk and a cry. In one of those meetings, they looked at each other and thought, “We’ve let ourselves go!”  They were afraid of being thought of as frivolous if they wore something nice.  They contacted Revlon and asked a representative to see them in secret, which was the second event that inspired the play.


To portray these ladies on stage without the story becoming sentimental or maudlin needs skilled performances.  The director’s hand on the tiller was very much in evidence in this production where the meeting in a bare, upstairs function room of a hotel really created that air of despair and desolation that would have engulfed these ladies.


My only slight quibble is that the ladies’ accents were not always consistent, and with so much concentration on creating a Welsh accent, projection became secondary, meaning that, as an audience, we would lose some of the dialogue. At one point, having a script in hand, although disguised, was a tad distracting.  I am sure that first night nerves might also have played a part. This was a shame as some of the more telling arguments for apportioning blame for the disaster that engulfed this community lost some of its impact.


That aside, the various characters were well portrayed.  Opening the play and getting the room ready for the visit of the Revlon representative, Charis Deighton played Sian, a lady who was bright and cheerful and desperately wanting the evening to go well as she was the instigator in wishing to help other ladies who had also lost children in the disaster. Any sorrow she felt was bottled up within until later in the play when her own anguish came to the fore. A nicely paced performance from this very skilled actress.


While we only were to hear Jackie’s voice, the next entrance was that of the Revlon lady herself.  Amy Towler, as Revlon looked every inch a Revlon representative with bright red blazer, bright red shoes and a bright red lipstick. Her entrance showed her carrying the make-up paraphernalia necessary for the evening’s demonstration. Her nicely cut-glass accent contrasted well with the Welsh of the other players.  This was another role that was very well portrayed, and we were treated to some wonderful light and shade in delivery of dialogue. There were some lovely comic moments dotted throughout her time on stage, especially when she was considering moving her car. Her revelation in Act II as to why she had become a make-up artist was extremely well delivered and, as an audience, we shared her grief. This was an assured performance.


The first lady to arrive for the evening was Marilyn.  Played by Liz Wood, the character obviously carried the weight of the world on her shoulders.  Very much an introvert, she was by turns tearful and indecisive and yet, deep down, wanting to snap out of the doldrums.  One of her outstanding deliveries was the utter contempt she felt for the sightseers who came to visit the disaster area. When she described how, when the rescuers had dug out a boy and a girl, the sightseers, who had been standing on a bank of coal waste, moved forward to have a look, dislodging the bank, thus causing the boy and girl to be buried again.  Liz gave a most moving portrayal of a mother consumed by grief.


While the room was being set up for the evening, the next lady to arrive was the foul-mouthed, fiery tempered, indomitable Rona played by Samm Antill. With her close-cropped hair, lumber-jack shirt and trousers, we very quickly realised this was not a lady with whom we would wish to mess.  This is a very strong role and one which puts across the message that this tragedy that had engulfed them had been wholly preventable but for the fact that the pursuit of money and profit had been the driving factor behind the creation of a slag-heap created over a known stream.  Throughout the play, various characters referred to this fact, but it was Rona who articulated it in no uncertain terms.  Her contempt for the various responsible authorities was most telling.  This was a well-defined portrayal.


The final character introduced was Jean.  Portraying a heavily pregnant lady, the wife of a church minister, Leanne Wharf gave a very moving portrayal of someone for whom God’s will would surmount all other feelings she might have.  One could not help but get a lump in the throat when she was telling of how she conceived the night before the disaster and that she didn’t want this child, she wanted her Kevin, the son she lost when the school was engulfed with coal slurry. This was another fine performance from an experienced actress.


The set created an empty function room with photographs of the period on a notice board stage right with the door to the downstairs also stage right.  There were period posters on two of the other walls.


There was a minimum of furniture necessary, a chair for each of the ladies, a high stool for the lady to be seated on whilst make up was being demonstrated, and a table for the Revlon lady to use to display her products. Properties were also kept to a minimum but, where appropriate, presented on cue. The costumes were nicely evocative of the period.


The sound cues were well balanced, and the lighting created the right atmosphere.


This was a superb play, well acted, directed and presented, and does go some way to understanding the dislike of financial considerations putting money before lives.