Theatre Royal, Brighton – until Saturday 4 March 2023
Reviewed by Sue Bradley
Steel Magnolias was written by Robert Harling, influenced by the loss of his sister in 1985. It isn’t a true story, but it might as well be – all the characters were drawn from people that Harling and his family knew, and the crackling dialogue has the spark of authenticity that keeps us involved, right from the start.
The story is set entirely in a small-town Louisiana beauty parlour presided over by the smart and sassy Truvy, played convincingly, in fine Dolly Parton style, by Lucy Speed. Here we also meet Clairee (a rich widow), the mother and daughter tag-team M’Lynn and Shelby, the determinedly single Ouiser, and Annelle, the new girl in town.
Together they gossip and discuss the business of living and loving, with much of their ‘material’ being provided by the men in their lives. We never meet these husbands and partners but, instead, are given broad-brush pictures which tell you more or less everything you need to know. Never cruel but often wickedly on-point, these are the kinds of conversations that usually only women seem to be able to have. Men could learn so much…
A poster of Dolly Parton on one of the walls of the set proudly proclaims ‘The higher the hair, the nearer to God’, and this sort of humour encapsulates the smart one-liners that underpin the whole show. Another favourite of mine was ‘”an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure”. I’m glad to say this play has no pretensions (beyond British people maintaining Louisiana accents, which, for the most part, they do very well)
It took a little while for the cast to find their rhythm and for us to get used to the strong accented quick-fire dialogue but by the time the interval came, we were fully engaged and eager for Part Two.
The second act takes a darker turn, as was really inevitable, and it is here that the close bonds between the characters really come into play as the women come together to form a much-needed support group. Laura Main’s portrayal of M’Lynn’s grief was genuinely moving and this was then set off by a beautifully timed moment of comic relief by Clairee (Caroline Harker) and Ouiser (Harriet Thorpe) bringing a welcome gale of laughter across the theatre.
The closeness of the characters is enhanced by the clever set which manages to let us see everything and yet confines the players in quite a tight space. Sound design worked well too, with an Eighties music soundtrack providing an appropriately tinny background, apparently issuing from a little pink radio.
We laughed and we cried and we left the theatre feeling we had seen something of how warmth, love and humour can help you get through the hard times and make the most of the good times.