Steel Magnolias – Richmond Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Robert Harling

Director: Anthony Banks

There is a line in the publicity material for this touring revival of Robert Harling’s play that implies this is a theatrical adaptation of the 1989 film starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts, among many others. In fact, this is a revival of the 1987 play upon which that film was based – and all the better for that. Whereas the film opened up the story of six friends to include their wider families, here, the focus remains solely on the women and their relationships with one another.

Set entirely within the beauty parlour owned by Lucy Speed’s Truvy Jones, the spine of the play revolves around the group’s youngest member, Shelby (Diana Vickers). When we first meet her, she is preparing for her forthcoming marriage, and her ideas for the hair treatments Truvy is to organise for her are at odds with her mother, M’Lynn’s (Laura Main) wishes.

This being the 80s, the hairstyles are bouffant and sky-high, especially for Speed: with her towering updo and ornate cowboy boots, costume designer Susan Kulkarni takes inspiration from the film to give her a Dolly Parton-like air. And Speed has the same bubbly, affable personality to match.

Other drop-ins to the salon include Caroline Harker’s Clairee, the Louisiana town’s former First Lady who finds herself at a loose end since the death of her husband, and the caustic Ouiser (Harriet Thorpe) who has spent so long being the town grouch that she’s almost forgotten how to find her soft centre.

Together with salon employee Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele) the women bond and spark, particularly as diabetic Shelby’s ongoing health problems, and her desire to be a mother despite them, create tensions and, ultimately, unity among the group.

Even within such an impressively strong ensemble, Vickers is the standout performer. Her Shelby is always in control, balancing out the larger-scale performances with subtlety, humour and grace. She is also the most consistent, accent-wise: while most of the ensemble is similarly strong, there are several occasions where very British twangs can be heard among the Louisiana accents.

The accent work is not quite as shaky as Laura Hopkins’ pine-clad set. While the salon’s pine-clad walls are redolent of the era, and their obvious sections allow for some quick-change adaptations between scenes as time progresses, they look rather more precarious than one would otherwise hope.

Ultimately, though, it’s the women and their camaraderie which is going to draw audiences in, and in that respect,Steel Magnolias delivers in spades. Director Anthony Banks ensures that Harling’s often hilarious script sparks and fizzes with a confidence that ensures its tragic moments are keenly felt. It’s also delivered with devastating effectiveness by a sextet of actors who are clearly revelling in their roles and take us willingly along with them.

Continues until 28 January, then touring

The Reviews Hub Score

Emotional comedy

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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