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Steel Magnolias

by on 26 January 2023

Stainless?

Steel Magnolias

by Robert Harling

Trafalgar Theatre Productions at Richmond Theatre until 28th January and then on tour until 22nd July

Review by Patrick Shorrock

Best known through the 1989 film, Steel Magnolias did actually start life as a play, which is presumably the justification for reviving it and taking it on tour now.  It certainly challenges the view that the only certainties in life are death and taxes by adding a third: the importance of getting your hair done.  Truvi and the patrons of her salon see their efforts to keep beautiful as battle armour against the disappointments of life.  ‘Nobody has natural beauty’, Truvi tells her apprentice Annelle:  beauty requires hard work and plenty of hairspray.   They achieve a degree of female solidarity amidst the bickering, as their hair and nails are turned into something very different from what nature intended … …

Over the play, we see that there is a lot of evasion of real life going on underneath the folksy self-conscious charm as they stoically struggle with mortality and men who disappoint  (‘Jackson is Jackson.’)  It’s a lot more effect as a survival strategy than the fey and wilful self-sabotage of Tennessee William’s characters.  It’s also interesting for an English audience that might be inclined to think it is unique in its emotional repression to see how it shows these Americans bottling up their angst – at least to start with – rather than letting it all hang out. 

Without the film’s formidable star wattage – it seems astonishing that the same film contained Dolly Parton, Shirley Maclaine, Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, and Julia Roberts – this revival does feel somewhat underpowered.  The southern accents come and go.  The dialogue is delivered with less than the appropriate languor.  I felt the cast would have been much more at home in an alternative – but not necessarily dissimilar – version transferred to somewhere not far from Coronation St, where women with northern accents and big hair keep adversity at bay with sharp humour.  But the southern drawl and the gunshots are needed for it to be Steel Magnolias rather than Brass Daffodils.  Unfortunately it certainly never rises to the heights of Calendar Girls

The performances may well become a sharper over time, but somehow they don’t convey personalities that are as strong as their lines or their outrageous costumes (Susan Kulkari).  Having to do people’s hair while delivering your lines seems to be quite a multi-tasking challenge and may explain how at one point a curler fell with a clatter into the auditorium.   

Laura Main is an effective and subtle TV performer, but doesn’t have what it takes for M’Lynn’s big emotional collapse, which really needs a monster emoter like Sally Field.  (The stage directions might as well say [chews scenery here as though it were a juicy steak!])  Lucy Speed’s Truvi comes across as more of a Dolly Parton impersonator than a character.  Diana Vickers has charm,  as well as a tough inner core, as diabetes-troubled Shelby and Elizabeth Ayodele is a winning Annelle (at least until she is temporarily laid low by a bout of  religious sanctimoniousness).  Having the role played by a black performer is one of the few bits of originality in Antony Banks’s bland production.  Laura Hopkins’ set was effective, particularly at marking the transitions from one period of time to another. 

The audience greets the familiar lines like old friends (‘If you haven’t anything nice to say about anybody, then come and sit next to me’) and shows considerable enthusiasm at the curtain call.   But were they applauding their fond memories of the film rather than this particular performance?

Patrick Shorrock, January 2023

Photography by Pamela Raith 

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