Steel Magnolias_Pamela Raith Photography

Steel Magnolias review

Review: Steel Magnolias

Convincing performances from a powerful cast… Jenny Booth reviews


Watching Steel Magnolias should be a little like being a child under the kitchen table, eavesdropping on the voices that come and go. In this warm, private, women-only space, everything that goes on in a small town in the southern US is talked over – no subject is taboo. Sometimes the voices sink to a consolatory murmur, sometimes they leap up in a raucous joke, sometimes they rattle mockingly back and forth; sometimes fear or anger are allowed to flare, before they are defused by a sardonic comment. It is a difficult atmosphere for actors to capture and to make it feel authentic; harder still to maintain through the mounting suspense of a tragic storyline. So it is a tribute to Anthony Banks, who directs a new production of Robert Harling’s popular 1980s play, that he has drawn from his powerful female cast such a convincing performance with such a sure sense of rhythm and flow. This week at Richmond Theatre audiences are seeing what promises to develop into a remarkable show.

 Harling based his plot on real events, and his characters on real people in his hometown. Angry and grieving, outraged that his sisters widower remarried so fast and encouraged their baby son to call his new stepmother Mama, he wanted to preserve the memory of his generous, headstrong sister who died after a failed kidney transplant. In the process he pays tribute to the tough but tender (‘steel magnolia’) women who loved and supported her. The setting is a beauty parlour, filled with intimacy and fellowship as the women make themselves presentable for the world outside. Two performances anchor the show: Diana Vickers is magnetic as mercurial Shelby, while Lucy Speed is droll and wise as the glamorous salon owner Truvy. Laura Main as Shelbys mother, M’Lynn, conveys her breakdown scene with sensitivity. There is excellent, detailed character work from Elizabeth Ayodele as dreamy Annelle, Caroline Harker as worldly Clairee and Harriet Thorpe as gruff Ouiser, whose characters change their look and move on in their lives as the show progresses

The show is enhanced by the witty set designed by Laura Hopkins (I particularly enjoyed the sign that read ‘The higher the hair, the closer to God’), and by the note-perfect 1980s costumes by Susan Kulkarni. Dialect coach Elspeth Morrison has successfully drilled the cast in the difficult southern US accent – at times almost too successfully, as the odd line gets lost in the drawl. But special mention must go to Richard Mawbey and Craig Forrest-Thomas whose stunning wigs are practically characters in their own right.

Richmond Theatre, until 28 Jan

And touring. 

Image: Pamela Raith Photography