FeaturedReviewSouth East

Steel Magnolias: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Reviewer: Lela Tredwell

Writer: Robert Harling
Director: Anthony Banks

The ultimate tribute to friendship, 80s fashion and the transformative power of a cut-and-blow dry, Steel Magnolias is a fabulous piece of theatre. It’s jam-packed with wit, style and moments of extreme poignancy. This is a production with a big heart that reflects the origins of the play, while giving a joyful nod to the much-loved film it inspired.

Set in a small town in Louisiana, inside beauty parlour Truvy’s, the play explores the powerful connections formed between groups of women. There’s a joyous vibe of camaraderie that extends beyond the confines of the cast. Pictures of Dolly Parton hang on the walls, cheekily reminding us of Dolly’s claim to the role of Truvy Jones. In this production, Truvy is masterfully inhabited by Lucy Speed, complete with giant hair and a wardrobe of fabulous outfits of which Dolly could be proud. Costume Designer Susan Kulkarni has created an inspiring nostalgic vision, complimented by that of Wig designer Richard Mawbey and set designer Laura Hopkins.

Steel Magnolias is much more than a story about bonding over great hair. Written by Robert Harling shortly after the death of his sister, it is based on real life experiences. After his sister’s funeral, he noticed how the women who supported her came together to tell stories and laugh in a way the men of his family did not seem able to do. He noticed also how the spell woven by this magic dissipated when a man entered the room. We get a flavour of this in the first scene of the play as gunshots pepper the conversation. These we learn originate from Drum who seems to be expressing his emotions regarding his daughter’s imminent wedding by shooting at birds in the trees. This, in part, feels a justification as to Harling’s purpose to set the play in a space where men would not go. The beauty parlour was also a place that had fascinated Harling as a child, seeing women enter and
seemingly transform.

Despite the tragedy at its heart, and at times because of it, Steel Magnolias is also an extremely funny play with fast-paced dialogue that sweeps you up into life in this small Louisiana town. Due to Harling’s skill at recreating the voices of his childhood, there is a great deal of authenticity that bursts out through colourful phrases and witty retorts. The highly competent cast of this production is such a thrill to watch in action, though they sure have their work cut out for them. There are a few moments of inconsistency with accents but otherwise the actors make delivering this richly dense dialogue look effortless. Harriet Thorpe absolutely slays as Ouiser Boudreaux. Her comic timing is perfect and each moment she enters the stage, we know we’re in for a treat. Diana Vickers plays a mesmerizing Shelby, while Laura Main expertly portrays her concerned mother, M’Lynn. Elizabeth Ayodele brings brightly to life the role of Annelle and Caroline Harker, Clairee.

The relationships are explored through vibrant exchanges and the focus here is refreshing. Harling was initially told that the play may not have commercial value due to it being about a group of women but this has turned out not to be the case. Famous names lined up to play the parts in the film adaptation, demonstrating how effectively it spoke to people then, as it still does now. Some of the most powerful moments in the play highlight how women hold it all together through the toughest of life’s moments. This is therefore a celebration of the strength of these women, and many like them, as well as a legacy for Susan, Robert Harling’s sister. He did not want her to be forgotten after the tragic end to her short life. In doing so, he created an honourable tribute that has been connecting with audiences for 30 years.

This fantastic production will be highly enjoyed by fans of the film, as well as new-comers to the
Steel Magnolias story. It will delight, entertain and move. This is a super theatrical experience that
should not be missed.

The Review Hub Score

Jam-packed with wit, style and poignancy

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