“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.