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Steel Magnolias at Richmond Theatre

It’s thirty-six years or so since Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias as a tribute to his diabetic sister, his mother and the group of local women who supported them during some tough times. First produced at the WPA Theatre in New York City, it was an enormous success and was turned into a movie in 1989 with a stellar cast including Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis and Dolly Parton. Now another fine cast is touring the UK from now until July and will be coming to a theatre near you very soon.

Steel Magnolias- Pamela Raith Photography.
Steel Magnolias- Pamela Raith Photography.

Steel Magnolias is set in Truvy’s hair and beauty salon in the fictional Louisiana town of Chinquapin. As the play begins, Truvy (played by Lucy Speed) has just employed a new member of staff, Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele) and will soon welcome in the salon’s regulars Clairee (Caroline Harker), Ouiser (Harriet Thorpe), Shelby (Diana Vickers) and her mother M’Lynn (Laura Main). In the salon where Truvy’s mantra is “There’s no such thing as natural beauty”, the women discuss Shelby’s forthcoming wedding, gossip about the townsfolk and moan about their feckless, sometimes abusive and often absent men whose motto Truvy says is “Shoot it, stuff it or marry it”! Not much happens in act one although Shelby is taken ill as her blood sugar drops and everyone is very concerned about her health. Act two is set nearly two years later and things take a darker turn as tragedy strikes and the women have to deal with it as the men are worse than useless.

Steel Magnolias is a tale of female friendship and the strength they get out of adversity – these are steel magnolias after all. The beauty salon is their safe place away from the men in their lives who wouldn’t dare set foot in such an establishment. Although they gossip and bitch, they know the other women are there for them and would do anything to help a friend in need.

The play is tightly written with some wonderful lines such as “I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free. And I don’t see movies ’cause they’re trash, and they got nothin’ but naked people in ’em! And I don’t read books, ’cause if they’re any good, they’re gonna make ’em into a miniseries”, “I’m not crazy, M’Lynn, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!” and “The nicest thing I can say about her is that her tattoos are spelt correctly”. And as well as some sparkling dialogue, there are moments of pathos too that bring a tear to the eye.

As for the cast, everyone is superb. Lucy Speed as Truvy channels her inner Dolly Parton whose image is all over the walls of the salon (and played the part in the movie). She also spends a lot of the first act doing Shelby’s hair and judging by the result, Speed has something to fall back on between acting parts if she wants. Diana Vickers is a delight as the fragile Shelby and Laura Main as her mother has concern written all over her face as she worries about her daughter’s health. Caroline Harker is excellent as the wealthy ex-Mayoress Clairee and Elizabeth Ayodele gives the religious zealot Annelle lots of depth and warmth. Harriet Thorpe as Ouiser Boudreaux gets all the best pithy and bitchy lines and spits them out with great gusto. Their difficult southern accents are excellent although one or two lines do get lost in the Louisiana drawl.

Laura Hopkins set is perfect conjuring up a beauty salon in the deep south in the eighties and is framed by a rectangular strip of lights that give the production a cinematic feel. However, for act two the whole salon is reversed i.e. what was on the right in act one, was now on the left and vice versa which seemed unnecessary and was a little disconcerting – maybe that was the point?

Steel Magnolias is what in the past was called “a woman’s play” (are we allowed to say that in 2023?) and judging by the make-up of the audience, that still seems to be who it’s appealing to. However, it’s really a play for everyone and it resonates as much in 2023 as it did when it was written nearly forty years ago.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

Steel Magnolias, the hilarious and heart-warming play based on a true story, which enjoyed huge global success in the hit 1989 film adaptation starring Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts, is embarking on an extensive UK and Ireland tour in 2023.

Harriet Thorpe, best known for her role as Carole Parkinson in The Brittas Empire and Fleur in Absolutely Fabulous, will join the star-studded ensemble cast, alongside Laura Main (best known as Sister Bernadette in BBC One’s Call the Midwife), Diana Vickers (The X Factor star who has gone on to lead roles in many theatre productions including Dial M For Murder and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice) and Lucy Speed (known for her television roles on EastEnders and The Bill, and as a new cast member on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers).

Brought beautifully to life on stage from Robert Harding’s original script, the show will begin its tour on 19 January at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre, travelling to over 20 venues and concluding on 22 July at the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton.

Completing the cast are Caroline Harker (A Touch of Frost) and Elizabeth Ayodele (Playboy of the West Indies).

Steel Magnolias at Richmond Theatre
Tuesday 24 – Saturday 28 January 2023

Theatre Royal Brighton
Tue 28 Feb – Sat 4 Mar 2023

The Alexandra, Birmingham
Tue 21 Mar – Sat 25 Mar 2023

Milton Keynes Theatre
Tue 16 May – Sat 20 May 2023

Theatre Royal Glasgow
Tue 30 May – Sat 3 Jun 2023

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1 thought on “Steel Magnolias at Richmond Theatre”

  1. My friends and I were so disappointed at the production of Steel Magnolias at Richmond as we could not hear the dialogue clearly.
    Admittedly we were seated in the last row of ‘the God’s ‘
    I thought it was just me but after speaking with others too it seemed we all had the same problem
    This obviously had a huge impact on our enjoyment of the show.
    The actors need to either project and annunciate more or use microphones.

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