Review: Sensitive Subjects – The Revlon Girl / Barren, Tristan Bates Theatre

“They asked me how I felt. 
How do you answer a question like that?” 

Sensitive Subjects is the title of this double bill of one-act plays which both deal with the traumatic experience of child bereavement in their own ways. Director Maxine Evans and playwright Neil Anthony Docking have deliberately approached the issue this way – The Revlon Girl looks back to the Aberfan disaster of 1966 and looks at how the small mining village community there tried to deal with the loss of over 100 children, and Barren tackles the issue of infertility in a modern day marriage, mourning the children that can never be – and whilst never an easy evening of theatre to watch, it is at times extraordinary.

Just over an hour in length, The Revlon Girl must surely rank as one of the best pieces of new writing in London at the moment. Docking imagines a support group meeting for the bereaved mothers of Aberfan, where 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives when a tip collapsed into the village, where a make-up rep from Revlon has been booked to try and lift their grief-stricken spirits. But there are as many ways to process grief as there are people in the world and this group of four women are no different, from near-catatonic shock to antisocial prickliness, over-compensatory geniality to terse officiousness. 

And where Docking and Evans really excel here is in gently showing us the validity of all these responses, how they’re all rooted in an unimaginable pain. There’s an impressive amount of humour in the set-up for the meeting and the establishment of each character, an instant shot of empathy which is then carried through beautifully as the tone darkens and the group begins to unburden their losses. There’s a harsh critique on the official response to the disaster, both corporate and governmental, but also a subtler one on society’s expectation for men and women to grieve and behave appropriately. 

So the committees to decide what to do with the relief fund are populated entirely by men who maintain their bluff stoicism in the face of personal tragedy and the women live in fear of being caught out for booking something as seemingly frivolous as a Revlon girl. It’s nothing so simple as that though and as their stories start to tumble out, it becomes a powerfully moving testimony – Charlotte Gray’s bright-eyed optimism and Bethan Thomas’ fiercely funny brusqueness stand out but Michelle McTernan’s hollowed-out devastation is just hauntingly magnificent.

Barren occupies a much different emotional space but to me felt less effective, both dramatically and directorially. Centred on Andi and Vic and how their struggle to conceive comes to utterly define their relationship and their marriage, Docking investigates the ways in which society can impose cruelty after cruelty on the childless. But the way in which the story is framed requires an awkward device which rarely convinces despite sterling work from Terri Dwyer and builds to a twist that doesn’t reach far enough in the payoff.

Will Norris and Ruth Minkley trace the contrasting experiences of men and women during IVF cycles effectively as the central couple but the bustling ensemble work to cover all the supporting characters was a little distracting and the move into movement felt unnecessary from a storytelling point of view. The way in which the story unfolds has potential but it might benefit from further development to reach the emotional heights of The Revlon Girl which is well worth the ticket price alone. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 27th June 

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