Review: Steel Magnolias, Richmond Theatre

“I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free”

The prospect of a stage version of Steel Magnolias, populated by a motley crew of British actresses from stage and screen, filled me with equally with dread and anticipation as I am a big fan of the film (one of Julia Roberts’ best performances). But curiosity won the day and for my first trip back to the theatre after a trip away, I made my way to Richmond Theatre to be transported to 1980s Louisiana and delve into the trials and tribulations of Truvy, M’Lynn, Shelby and co.

Robert Harling’s story was originally a play (sadly inspired by the death of his sister) and though the expanded action of the film may be more familiar, the play’s limitation to Helen Goddard’s perfectly 80’s-hued beauty parlour across four acts is structurally sound and works extremely well. This salon forms a gathering place for six women and over a period of three years, we see the ebb and flow of life and how the mutually supportive atmosphere helps all of them in one way or another as they variously look for and selflessly give strength to one another. 

The joy here is in the vivaciousness of the characters and my fears were unfounded as the company largely rose to the challenge and delivered some excellent performances. Kacey Ainsworth as the newly arrived and rather suggestible Annelle plays out her journey with great sensitivity; Cherie Lunghi is perfect as the deliciously gay-friendly Clairee and sparks off Cheryl Campbell’s warmly eccentric Ouiser with great chemistry and affection; and Denise Welch was a revelation, a timely reminder of her beginnings as an actress, as a softly-spoken but endearingly wise Truvy.

The drama comes from the determination of young Shelby to have a child, against the advice of her doctors and her mother M’Lynn, as she is diabetic. Knowing the story, I thought the foreshadowing was done extremely well with several goose-bump-inducing moments; for those that don’t, take tissues. Isla Blair’s dignified, devastatingly moving performance as M’Lynn is sensational, especially in the highly affecting final act, that Sadie Pickering’s Shelby is sometimes a little overshadowed, never feeling quite as relaxed or as natural with her accent. But her notes of youthful exuberance largely provide a great counter-balance to the advanced years of most of those around her.

David Gilmour’s production is relatively unfussy, largely eschewing directorial tricks but contriving to unnecessarily highlight somewhat extended scene changes with clunky music tracks. These are assumably to account for the considerable costume and wig changes but it is fortunate the play is as good as it is as they would otherwise severely try the patience. But good it is, funny and moving in the right places and stuffed full of great performances.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 19th May then touring to Birmingham, Newcastle, Southampton and Milton Keynes

3 thoughts on “Review: Steel Magnolias, Richmond Theatre

  1. I don't know which play you saw, but the performance I saw at Richmond last Friday bears no resemblance to this review! The actresses did not engage with the audience, there was a singular lack of emotion and connection with each other and quite frankly I couln't have cared less which character died! The accents were 'off' with Ms Welch slipping into pure Coronation Street every now and then. A poor performance.

    Totally agree with the previous comment. Very disappointed. Most boring show I have ever seen. No emotion and so stilted it was unbelievable. Shame really with the amount of talent that was on the stage.

  3. Completely agree – what a load of rubbish and acting was also rubbish. Dont bother going to see this and wasting your money buy the DVD and a packet of tissues instead (the film is fantastic with some terrific actresses) – the only reason you will shed a tear after going to see this rubbish is for realising how much money you have just wasted!!!!!!!! Birmingham Rep 26th May 12

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *