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Steel Magnolias at Theatre Royal Brighton

Robert Harling originally wrote Steel Magnolias as a short story dealing with the death of his sister who had Type 1 Diabetes. He was then encouraged to expand it into an off-Broadway play in 1987 and then a highly successful movie starring Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine and Dolly Parton, amongst others. Harling felt it important to include the way in which the characters use humour and light-hearted conversation to deal with the seriousness of the underlying situation, which is what his family did. The production under review was first seen at Bromley in January this year, and is touring until April.

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

Set in the Louisiana parish of Chinquapin, the play takes place at Truvy’s in-home beauty parlor (her husband added walls to the carport) where a group of women (M’Lynn Eatenton (Laura Main), Ousier Boudreaux (Harriet Thorpe), Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie (Diana Vickers), Truvy Jones (Lucy Speed), Clairee Belcher (Caroline Harker), and Annelle Dupuy-Desoto (Elizabeth Ayodele)) regularly get together. The plot covers events over the next three years relating to Shelby’s diabetes, marriage and pregnancy, as well as how the women cope with their conflicts whilst remaining friends.

Truvy is onstage almost throughout. Once one has got used to the accent, which takes a few minutes, she is superb, having terrific energy and ensuring that the pace only flags when she and the director want it to, in order to emphasise a joke or particularly poignant moment. She spends much of the time actually hairdressing and, if one watches closely, is obviously very competent. This attention to detail is evident throughout the play and something for which the director, Anthony Banks, must take much credit.

Annelle is Truvy’s new assistant at the start of the play, quickly becoming part of the ‘family’. Elizabeth Ayodele fully inhabits this role, again exhibiting her hairdressing skills with aplomb, but also convincing us of her Christian views as well as her sense of humour. She makes what could be a secondary, perhaps underwritten, role into something much more.

Shelby, never completely healthy but forever cheerful and making the best of life, is a beautifully understated performance by Diana Vickers, and her mother M’Lynn is powerfully played by Laura Main, especially in the final scene where she is very believable, really drawing the audience in, who feel her pain, almost like being in the beauty salon with her.

Others in this truly ensemble cast are Harriet Thorne as a much larger-than-life Ouiser Boudreaux and Caroline Harker as Clairee Belcher.

The clever set, which we see from different perspectives, has been imaginatively designed by Laura Hopkins, looking just like one would imagine a beauty salon of the 1980s looking, including hair on the floor waiting to be swept up!

Impressive wigs have been designed by Richard Mawbey, Truvy’s especially being magnificent.

The play impresses, even after nearly forty years, by the way in which taboo topics are dealt with using humour and a ‘no nonsense’ attitude, everyone, being friends, supporting everyone else. A lovely evening in the theatre, and much food for thought.


4 stars

Review by John Groves

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.

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.

M’Lynn Eatenton (Laura Main),
Ousier Boudreaux (Harriet Thorpe)
Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie (Diana Vickers)
Truvy Jones (Lucy Speed)
Clairee Belcher (Caroline Harker)
Annelle Dupuy-Desoto (Elizabeth Ayodele)

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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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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