John Cooper Studio @41, York – until 22 February 2020.
Reviewed by Michelle Richardson
York Stage have bought their latest production of Steel Magnolias to the John Cooper Studio @41. A box theatre I had never been to before. On stepping inside the building it was quite a unique experience, all dark walls, stairs and corridors, to finally get to the actual theatre area, which by comparison was very bright. The stage was set up in the middle as a 1980’s hair salon with three rows of white seating each side, very intimate and we could sit wherever we wanted.
Steel Magnolias, based on the much loved female driven film, is the bittersweet story of six women who frequent Truvy’s Beauty Salon. It is a hub of social life for the ladies of the town, where over the space of four days (scenes), across nearly three years. Six women share secrets, recipes, swap gossip, meet friends, and of course get big hairdos. A story of marriage, motherhood, love and loss. Men are not seen, but they are topics of conversation, especially with the loud blasts of gun shot that echo through the salon.
Truvy (Kathryn Addison), all resplendent in her animal print and magnificent perm, owns the salon and doesn’t believe in “natural beauty”. She has just taken on a new stylist, the timid and shy Annelle (Carly Morton), who has her own secrets. It is an important day where everything revolves around Shelby (Louise Henry), who is getting married and has chosen Truvy to do her wedding hair. She is adamant that she is going to wear her hair up and be full of baby’s breath flowers, much to her mother’s disgust. M’Lynn (Joanne Theaker) has accompanied her daughter to the salon, to also have her hair done, along with Clairee (Sandy Nicholson), a friend and widow of the former mayor. The final player, who we get to meet later, is the eccentric and totally bonkers Ouiser (Julie Ann Smith). Over time we see these ladies, bond together, argue together and then grieve together.
All is not sweetness and light though, with Shelby suffering a diabetic episode, setting the seeds of what is to come later. Advised not to have children, she gets pregnant anyway, and gives birth to a premature baby boy, who nonetheless flourishes. Unfortunately, her body cannot take it and tragedy strikes.
You really got to believe in the characters, and all six performances performed skillfully, but Ouiser was just brilliant. Smith’s portrayal was just so over the top, it was superb. Addison must be commended for stepping in Truvy’s role at short notice, she had so much dialogue, it can’t have been easy. As always, Theaker delivers a strong performance, most notably during M’Lynn’s tortured speech that had the audience sniffling and dabbing their eyes, a truly powerful moment. You could tell that the actors were truly immersed in their roles, as even at the curtain call tears could be seen in their eyes.
The set worked really well and it was great to be in the thick of it, I really enjoyed the intimacy of the venue. At times it really felt as if we were part of the show and it was hard not to reply to questions when the characters were asking, you got that involved. As for the dodgy haircuts, dress sense and music, it took me right back to when I was growing up. I’m an 80’s chick and love reminiscing, even on the way back to the car I had a conversation about how both of us had those questionable perms.
This bittersweet but sentimental comedy, directed and designed by Nik Briggs, will make you laugh and cry, so make sure you take a hanky with you. For the price of a ticket you honestly can’t go wrong.