Steel Magnolias is one of those shows where I had to very deliberately suspend my disbelief as soon as I came through the entrance, and put to one side Dolly Parton’s stunning performance as Truvy Jones in the motion picture of the same name as the original stage play. I should also point out that I hold this play in high esteem, and have done for some years, because it is one of the few shows that treats a form of diabetes that I happen to ‘suffer’ from with appropriate consideration and sensitivity, without passing over into exaggeration or, worse still, triviality. Regardless of these high expectations, I am pleased to report this production does not disappoint.
On sale at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch during the run of Steel Magnolias are pink cocktails, in keeping with the selected colours (“pink and pink”) for the wedding of Shelby (Gemma Salter) and her beau Jackson. The two pinks, in Shelby’s mind, are “blush and bashful” – and while “one is much deeper than the other” it is not explained precisely which is which.
All of the action takes place in a beauty salon in Chinquapin Parish, apparently in Louisiana (there is no actual such parish in Louisiana by that name) but the community is nonetheless suburban, or at least it feels that way – there are plenty of trees and greenery in the neighbourhood, or so the dialogue would have us believe. In any case it is not an agricultural community. The show’s four scenes are set on various Saturdays between April 1984 and November 1986. Saturday allowed all the characters to be at the same place at the same time, to get their hair done (or to perform a hairdresser’s duties).
Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn (Claire Storey) – short for Mary Lynn – appeared, sat next to each other on stage having their hair done, more like siblings than parent/child. To be fair, M’Lynn later muses, “I have the constitution of someone ten years’ younger”. “It’s the little things,” Stephen Sondheim once wrote, and this production pays attention to detail. Christmas lights go on (to applause from the audience) to depict a scene change from spring to the following winter. An electric fan blows to depict an unseasonably warm day in one scene. The scene following is unseasonably cold, so an electric heater appears in the fan’s place. Inexpensive, but effective. Job done.
The beauty salon is run by Truvy Jones (Sarah Mahony) and her assistant Annelle (Lucy Wells). Clairee Belcher (Tina Gray) and Ouiser – pronounced ‘Weezer’ – Boudreaux (Gillian Cally) are both older ladies, the former elegant and stylish, the latter, in her own words, has “just been in a very bad mood for 40 years”. Her words are abrasive in intonation, but there’s a lack of genuine malice when she speaks, and it’s Clairee that has the putdown punchlines (“Why are you in such a good mood? Did you run over a small child or something?”). Here, the ladies can speak their mind, without fear and without favour. It’s a sign of past times when words were not misconstrued or taken out of context by the easily offended. And I loved it. Mind you, the dialogue was not particularly offensive anyway, certainly not by contemporary standards.
Taking into consideration her recent performance in the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ as well as this show, Lucy Wells is what in some quarters is called a ‘quadruple threat’. I’m not sure why the term ‘threat’ is used in this context (I prefer ‘quadruple talent’), but it refers to performers who can sing, dance, act and play musical instruments. This level of versatility is evident in Sarah Mahony too. It’s a joy to see actor-musicians also do straight plays, and even better when they do so with the same level of skill and proficiency as when they’re singing a narrative in a musical.
I was also impressed by how consistently solid the characters’ personalities remained as they were, relatively unchanged by the seasons and years that pass. Clairee’s response to new information coming to light regarding Shelby’s physical condition revealed so much more than what was actually spoken. At face value, she and the other ladies are being intrusive and demanding in wanting to know all the details. But the audience is not left seething, wishing these women would politely mind their own business. The genuine love and concern for one another, from which this need for information arises, is palpable.
The show loses its way somewhat in the third scene. The scene changes themselves felt a tad too long and clunky, which no amount of upbeat southern country music playing over the speakers can quite cover up. Anyway, it’s in the poignant final scene, where these friendships become stronger still, in the face of bereavement. The audience does not reach for their handkerchiefs or disposable tissues when tragedy strikes – we know, even before they rally round, that the remaining ladies will continue to support and be there for one another.
Perfectly cast, this production flows very well and is over all too soon. Equally heart-breaking and heart-warming, Steel Magnolias takes its audiences through a rollercoaster of emotions. As Truvy puts it, “laughter through tears in my favourite emotion” – if it’s yours, you’ll love Steel Magnolias. If it isn’t, you’ll still find it delightful. This tight cast of six come across as women who get on excellently off-stage as well as on, and it was a pleasure to watch a cast work so well together in an ensemble play, with high quality dialogue courtesy of Robert Harling’s script.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch production of Steel Magnolias
by Robert Harling
18 September – 10 October, 2015
Fragile as magnolias and as tough as steel, six women share laughter through tears, strength through adversity and tolerance through friendship…..whilst changing hairstyles, swapping recipes and dealing with heartache.
Set in a Louisiana beauty salon in the 1980s, this inspiring play shows that extraordinary experiences exist within ordinary lives, and takes us on a rollercoaster ride through day-to-day conversations, emotions and the circle of life.
Beautician Truvy’s regulars include the town stalwart M’Lynn and her fragile daughter Shelby, new-in-town shy girl Annelle, curmudgeonly Ouiser and former first lady Clairee. They are thrown together in pursuit of looking their best, and they form supportive friendships and strong bonds that will see them through births, deaths and marriages.
When severely tested, the women show their steel-like strength, supporting each other as the darkest hours descend.
This heartfelt and inspiring story will make you laugh, cry and appreciate enduring friendships.
Contains adult themes – call the Box Office for guidance
Tuesday 22nd September 2015