Trafalgar Theatre Productions
The Lowry, Salford
February 21-25, 2023; 2hrs 15mins
(Tour now ends April 22; performances at Liverpool and Leeds have been cancelled).
We used to live in South Louisiana, in the 1980s. Not in a glamorous antebellum period home in several acres like those in the hugely-successful film, but definitely amidst old-school Southern grace and charm – and the old-world views on the male/female divide that underpin Steel Magnolias.
I might not have had my hair done every Saturday, but I was invited to enough neighbourhood groups to know that the bonds of family and friendship among local women were strong and immensely supportive. That much rings very true in Robert Harling’s play, unusually written for the stage in 1987 (based on the experience of his diabetic sister), then quickly turned into a film script and then readapted for the stage.
Unfortunately, despite (or perhaps because of) the success of the film, the play does not live up to the strengths and personalities of the characters it aims to portray.
The whole story is somehow diluted by its single setting – Truvy's hair and beauty salon – not enhanced by it. The set is reversed for the second act, but for no effective reason that I could see...
There is plenty going on in these women’s lives. Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele) has been abandoned by her drug-dealer husband, and has found God; Ouiser (Harriet Thorpe) is feuding over a magnolia tree and her ageing dog with the trigger-happy husband of M’Lynn (Laura Main); Truvy’s (Lucy Speed) family is a soap opera in itself and Clairee (Caroline Harker) is struggling to spend her late husband’s money. In the middle of it all there is the pivotal figure of Shelby (Diana Vickers) – simultaneously ingenue, free spirit and classical tragic heroine.
The script is full of sparky one-liners, many recognised and acknowledged by the audience. But this is not stand-up, nor a sketch show, and there has to be more to it than the jokes, good as they are. Despite the best efforts of this talented and hard-working cast, the play sags between the whip-cracks, losing some plot lines and dragging its feet with others. The potential depth and intricacy of the central relationship between Shelby and her mother is constantly undermined by the shallowness of the writing.
Both halves seemed long and with little significant development along the way. Director Anthony Banks keeps everyone very busy – interestingly a wig designer is credited, but not a hairdressing coach – and this busyness never feels stilted or forced.
It is the storytelling that lumbers: some very clumsy “sit down and tell me everything the audience needs to know” moments, the random introduction of a gay coming-out tale (which has not stood the test of time), the laboured running thread about Shelby’s fixation with all things pink.
The actors’ energy sees us through much of this, though at times the accents get the better of them –keeping up a quick, conversational pace to carry the script while maintaining a southern drawl is no mean feat. If it slipped from time to time, I doubt there were many in the audience who were worried.
Steel Magnolias is a much-loved film and this carried the day, despite the best efforts of the playwright.
More info and tickets here