When a drama receives so much attention on being taken to film as Steel Magnolias has it is hard to leave behind such a piece of cinema. But leave it behind you must as this beautifully scripted piece of theatre is by far the better work. Every word is there for a reason and every line makes total sense, from the sugary platitudes to the razor sharp barbs.
Set entirely in Truvie’s beauty parlour keeps the work grounded and focused, there are few distractions from the story and the same can be said of every absentee male character who we see only from the perspective of this tightly meshed group of women.
To pull all this off requires a cast of actors of great skill, women in this case who can deliver those lines with both vigour and sincerity, and all this with Deep South accents and breathtaking rapidity. And if there is anything to criticise it is perhaps the speed at which those opening moments are delivered. It took me a good five minutes before my ears (and brain) became attuned to the voices. But once there I was totally absorbed and impressed.
Truvy is played so beautifully by Lucy Speed, sharp tongued and opinionated but deeply caring, she commands both the role and the stage throughout. Diana Vickers is delightful as the slightly air-headed Shelby, prattling on about the inconsequential details of her wedding whilst covering up for her own weaknesses and realities. Laura Main’s performance as M’Lynn is packed with world weary charm and resignation and later with maternal fears as the tragedy of the story unfolds. Clairee is played by Caroline Harker and played with a sure hand, her status within the community commanding respect because she is kind, ordinary and well loved, despite her wealth, and she has some of the best lines too which she delivers with the lightest of touch. Elizabeth Ayodele plays Annelle, the young woman dropped into the group as she is trying to escape from a terrible marriage to a terrible man and in fact his absentee character is the only truly bad male in the story, the rest are flawed yes, lazy and even stupid, but never portrayed as really bad. And this is perhaps what makes the play so fascinating, it’s a play about sisterhood that does not portray men as villains.
Harriet Thorpe has over the years proved that she can capture a role with brilliant vocal skills and comic timing and here she has the challenge of creating her own version of an iconic cinema role in the form of Ouiser. Ouiser is bitter and twisted and driven and Harriet Thorpe make the part all her own, unflinchingly so. She surely has to be one of our greatest comedy actors.
The staging of this production is natural and simplistic with one clever twist when after the interval we see the salon from the other side. The use of a radio track is at moments poignant but at times irritating, theatrical tinnitus perhaps.
This is a cleverly realised and beautifully delivered ensemble piece, captivating and funny and eventually heartbreakingly moving.
In a final note, there is a poster on the wall bearing the message “The higher the hair the closer to God” and Lucy Speed proves just that with a remarkable “do” that she creates live, a towering tonsorial triumph atop the head of Shelby, dotted with baby’s breath and worthy of any bride. Were she to ever be resting between roles she could certainly get a job in any self respecting salon.
Theatre Royal Brighton