Steel Magnolias

Robert Harling
Trafalgar Theatre Productions
The Lowry, Salford

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Steel Magnolias Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Steel Magnolias Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Steel Magnolias Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Steel Magnolias Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Steel Magnolias Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Steel Magnolias Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Efforts are occasionally made to attract non-theatregoers into theatres by adapting films with which they are already familiar—Rain Man, The Shawshank Redemption—from the screen to the stage. The current version of Steel Magnolias is marketed in such a manner and Lucy Speed is made up to resemble Dolly Parton who starred in the movie. Actually, the reverse is the case: Steel Magnolias is the original stage play upon which the film was based.

A beauty parlour in a small Louisiana town is the nexus where events in Robert Harling’s 1980s comedy-drama unfold. Truvy Jones (Lucy Speed) employs newcomer Elizabeth Ayodele (Annelle Dupuy-Desot) who, being recently abandoned by her husband (who is on the run from the law and may not legally be her husband), is down on her luck. Yet Truvy and Elizabeth along with former mayor Clairee Belcher (Caroline Harker) and town grouch Ouiser Boudreaux (Harriet Thorpe) are secondary characters.

The focal point of the play is the relationship between M'Lynn Eatenton (Laura Main) and her daughter Shelby (Diana Vickers). The latter is spirited and determined to live life to the full regardless of her diabetic condition. Despite the risk to her fragile health, Shelby is determined to have a baby and, as Shelby’s condition worsens, M'Lynn finds herself increasingly in need of the support of her friends.

The accents of the cast vary from the deep south of America to Received Pronunciation. It takes a while for the ear to adjust, but director Anthony Banks ensures audibility with a novel approach. As the characters are in a salon and constantly checking their appearances in reflective surfaces Banks has them use the audience as a mirror and face towards, and direct their speeches at, the audience rather than each other. It makes for a slightly artificial atmosphere but at least the vocals are clear.

Wig designer Richard Mawbey makes a vital contribution to the play, although Caroline Harker draws the short straw and ends up with the least convincing wig since Michael Fabricant.

At times, Robert Harling’s script seems to comprise a series of somewhat trite (if very funny) mottos mainly articulated by Lucy Speed’s wisecracking beautician who maintains, “there’s no such thing as natural beauty,” and that the menfolk of the town live by the saying, “shoot it, stuff it or marry it’’. But this laugh rather than cry approach prevents the play from descending into melodrama.

Steel Magnolias is an unashamed weepie. Yet the script constantly undercuts the tragedy with humour that allows the audience some relief from the dramatic tension. At the moment when emotions are at their highest with M'Lynn declaring the urge to hit someone just so they feel as bad as her, an unwilling volunteer is pushed forward.

The pathos is enhanced by Diana Vickers’s approach to the character of Shelby. Rather than a spirited or indomitable character, Vickers initially shows Shelby as eccentric, almost childlike with an obsession about the colour pink. Shelby’s passionate devotion to a family and her dignified attitude to her illness become, therefore, all the more moving.

The folksy charm of Steel Magnolias is surprisingly endearing and its tribute to the power of friendship over adversity remains relevant for a contemporary audience.

Reviewer: David Cunningham