Review: Steel Magnolias, Richmond Theatre

A brilliantly cast makes for a wonderfully perky and poignant Steel Magnolias at Richmond Theatre and then touring the UK

“I’m not crazy…I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years”

With its affirmations that “the higher the hair, the closer to God”, it can be easy to dismiss Steel Magnolias as a delightful piece of bouffant camp. But whilst Robert Harling’s play certainly is that in places, it is also a considered and affecting study of female friendship and the solace it can provide when dealing with feckless husbands and lovers and the trouble they can bring. It’s a play I like – indeed I saw a previously touring production here at Richmond Theatre back in 2012 and adored Matthew Parker’s intimate version at the Hope Theatre in 2016 – and Anthony Banks’ new touring production meets the mark, with an exceptionally well-cast ensemble.

Set over a handful of years in small-town Lousiana, a group of women regularly gather in Truvy’s beauty parlour to gossip mercilessly, complain about the men in their lives and occasionally get their hair did. As they celebrate marriages and births, contemplate life as a widow or taking a new lover, we can’t help but fall in love with them and the safety net of support that they variously offer each other. And as sacrifices are made, in order to please those men, the physical and emotional toll that this takes manifests itself in heartbreaking ways, something that Banks’ direction astutely reinforces through the recalibration of some of the relationships here.

Call the Midwife may have largely kept Laura Main from the stage in recent years (she was in a brilliant Company back in 2011 that also featured Cassidy Janson and Katie Brayben) but she is phenomenal as the estimable M’Lynn, whose emotional turbulence is kept in as long as she can bear – though wrought across her deeply expressive face – until she shatters painfully. Diana Vickers impresses as her daughter Shelby, dogged in pursuit of what she wants, whether baby’s breath in her hair or actual baby breath in her home. And as the redoubtable Ouiser, Harriet Thorpe offers a more genial interpretation of the character which only serves to deepen the emotional connections she brings.  

That warmth is absolutely a hallmark of this production. Lucy Speed’s Truvy epitomises this beautifully, as the plain-talking, straight-shooting nucleus around which the group spins and with echoes of Dolly Parton on both the stereo and in her magnificent coiffure (shout-out to Richard Mawbey’s wig work), her deeply compassionate natures radiates throughout. Caroline Harker’s Clairee and Elizabeth Ayodele’s Annelle round out the cast – Serena Hill’s casting is expertly done (and the production will be getting their money’s worth from her as the company will be largely recast for the latter part of the tour). But whilst this pitch-perfect ensemble is in place, there’s so much to enjoy in this wonderfully perky and poignant show. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Pamela Raith
Steel Magnolias runs at Richmond Theatre until 28th January and then continues to tour to:
31 January – 4 February Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield
7 – 11 February Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford
14 – 18 February Theatre Royal, Bath
21 – 25 February The Lowry, Salford
28 February – 4 March Theatre Royal, Brighton
7 – 11 March Palace Theatre, Southend
21 – 25 March Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham
28 March – 1 April Wycombe Swan Theatre, High Wycombe
4 – 8 April Curve Theatre, Leicester
11 – 15 April Theatre Royal, Nottingham
18 – 22 April New Theatre, Cardiff
25 – 29 April Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
2 – 6 May Malvern Theatre
9 – 13 May Northcott Theatre, Exeter
16 – 20 May Milton Keynes Theatre
23 – 27 May Everyman Playhouse, Liverpool
30 May – 3 June Theatre Royal Glasgow
6 – 10 June The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
13 – 17 June New Theatre, Hull
20 – 24 June Wyvern Theatre, Swindon
4 – 8 July Orchard Theatre, Dartford
11 – 15 July Grand Theatre, Leeds
18 – 22 July Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton

Laura Main and Caroline Harker will appear up to and including Cardiff.
Harriet ThorpeDiana Vickers and Lucy Speed will appear up to and including High Wycombe.
Elizabeth Ayodele will appear at all venues.
Further casting to be confirmed soon

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