Steel Magnolias – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: Robert Harling

Director: Anthony Banks

Truvy jokes that the only romantic thing her husband ever did was to convert their carport into her beauty salon in which she now holds court with the women of Chinquapin, Louisiana – the beauty salon where anyone who is anyone has their hair done and where all the action of Steel Magnolias takes place.

We’re in the 1980s, where the higher the hair, the closer to God. And while the women we meet may bicker and poke fun at one another – or even disagree over the ownership of a magnolia tree – we also see the strength that the bonds of friendship and love that they share generate. Each character has her own story arc as she develops through the play: Truvy’s nervous and shy new stylist, Annelle, who is trying out at the beginning, eventually reveals her past and moves through a hedonistic phase to become a member of a fundamentalist Christian sect; Clairee, the widow of the ex-mayor who is initially at a loose end as to her future but still has a light wit; Ouiser, a matriarchal figure, and her neighbour M’Lynn, mother of Shelby. At the start, Shelby is having her beauty treatments ready for her wedding to Jackson. But it’s soon clear that all is not well with Shelby: she’s a diabetic and we see the women rally round to treat her when she slips into a classic ‘hypo’. Later, against medical advice, she becomes pregnant, a decision that will have tragic consequences for her.

There’s not much action in the largely static set from Laura Hopkins, although there is a neat twist during the interval. Director Anthony Banks has made the most of the genuine warmth and humour in Robert Harling’s script keeping the whole fast-moving. However, the accents of most of the characters are extremely thick, meaning it takes a few minutes to get one’s ear attuned, and even then phrases can sometimes be missed.

In the film version, Truvy was played by Dolly Parton, and one can see how Parton has influenced director Banks and Lucy Speed who plays her; nevertheless, Speed’s Truvy never steps over the line into caricature: she has her share of genuinely funny lines delivered in a deadpan southern drawl. She’s a source of humour and support for her friends. Laura Main’s M’Lynn has maybe the most difficult journey as she must watch her daughter make her own decisions while fearing for the consequences. Her performance in the final section is a real tour de force as the emotions she’s been trying to keep in check eventually pour out in the safe space that is Truvy’s. Diana Vickers’ Shelby is naïve and brittle yet brimming with youthful self-assurance. Her steadfast belief that pink is ‘her’ colour and that all will be well is heart-warming, even if a least one of those beliefs will turn out to be misplaced. A steadying hand is provided by Caroline Harker’s Clairee, who is happy to poke fun at herself, although her accent has more of the English south about it than the American one. Elizabeth Ayodele’s Annelle is understated but sweetly charming. At this performance, Ouiser was played by Claire Carpenter; her performance feels a touch hesitant, perhaps lacking the bluster and confidence that Ouiser’s words suggest, muting any personality clashes.

Notably absent from the play are any of the menfolk, but this feels totally right. We feel we get to know them through the lenses of the women, but Steel Magnolias is about women supporting one another to deal with their issues together, actually seeing the men would simply be a distraction.

It’s difficult to fault Harling’s writing – inspired by events in his own family – of this ensemble piece, especially in the way that the lives of these women are used to show us how people develop and rise and cope with adversity. It’s worth checking out.

Runs until: 25 March 20-23 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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