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23rd February 2023

Review: Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias is a fun, feel-good and emotional exploration of female friendship, so it’s a real shame the tour has been cut short by three months
Review: Steel Magnolias
Elizabeth Ayodele, Laura Main, Caroline Harker, Harriet Thorpe, Lucy Speed, and Diana VickersPhoto: Pamela Raith Photography

Robert Harling based Steel Magnolias on his experience with his sister’s death, who died of type-one diabetes. A few year’s after its release, the play was adapted into a (better-known) movie, with an all-star cast: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts in her first major role. I had never heard of the play but wanted to see it because of its own all-star cast.

The entire play is set in a hair salon in the north-western Louisiana town of Chinquapin Parish – in the 1980s. The salon is owned by the fabulous Truvy Jones, played by Lucy Speed (EastEnders, The Bill), who does her best Dolly Parton impression.

The play begins with Truvy hiring Anelle Dupoy-Deseto (played by Daryl Hannah in the film), a beauty grad with a mysterious past. Anelle is played by rising star Elizabeth Ayodele, who holds her own against the established stars around her. It’s great to see a Black woman in the cast, and whilst at first I complained that the play’s least insignificant character was the one given to a person of colour, the second act lets Anelle shine; she has a really interesting character arc. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of faith and grief.

The first customer to arrive is Clairee Belcher, with Caroline Harker (A Touch of Frost) stepping into the shoes left by the late, great Olympia Dukakis. Glamorous and graceful, Clairee is perhaps the play’s tamest character, though there’s an hilarious moment in the final scene in which a devastated M’Lynn Eatenton wants to hit something and Clairee volunteers their brash friend Ouisser!

M’Lynn’s daughter, Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie, is the youngest of the cohort; the Gabrielle Solis of the gang, so to speak. She arrives to the salon in preparation for her wedding day. She’s played by Diana Vickers (The X Factor), a Lancashire lass (we stan), taking on the role that turned Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman and 50% of all rom-coms) into a star. Shelby is likeable, and an interesting foil to the older and thus more experienced women around her. A shocking revelation in the first scene connects the four scenes, which are months apart, together.

M’Lynn, played by Sally Field in the movie, is portrayed by Laura Main (Call the Midwife). Main perfectly embodies the quintessential overbearing mother, who clearly just wants what is best for her daughter. We often complain that our mothers are too invasive and worrisome yet we recognise these traits in other people’s mothers as those of good, caring mothers.

We always know what M’Lynn is thinking, even when she is silent, which is testament to Main’s acting ability. The second scene begins with M’Lynn and Shelby arguing before the other women, oblivious, join them. M’Lynn is silent until the end of the scene; she lies with her eyes closed for awhile, flicks through a magazine, acknowledges the other women with a subtle smile, etc. The other characters seem oblivious but the audience, having witnessed the fight, can feel the tension; M’Lynn’s silence speaks a thousand words.

Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux does not arrive until later on in the first scene – and, oh, what an arrival! I’d expected Harriet Thorpe (Absolutely Fabulous) to be playing a glamorous southern belle but Ouisser is more erratic than elegant. Thorpe gives Shirley MacLaine a run for her money with this portrayal. She steals every scene and chews up the scenery.

Speaking of the scenery… There’s some interesting design choices. Unlike the film, the entire action takes place in the salon, which actually works; at the very least, it’s different, and one can appreciate that. It presents the 80s hair salon as a community, where middle-aged women (and one of their daughters) in a quiet town gather for a catch-up.

The salon, itself, is finely decorated. I loved the images of Dolly Parton, a nod to the film and an explanation for Speed being made up to look like Parton whilst the other actors do not look like their previous actors.

For the second act, the set “turns around”, so that we see the other side of the salon (with even more Parton images). This was a good idea because locating all of the action in one setting can become a little tiresome; offering us another view of the location almost felt like a scene change.

The whole set is held in a rectangular, TV-like box, with a blue-pink light around the edges. The set is small in comparison to The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre stage. Perhaps the play has been playing at or will play at some smaller theatres. I’m not sure why the designers did not opt to have the salon make up the entire stage, like in almost all other productions, rather than shove it into a box. Is it an attempt to make the salon feel intimate – claustrophobic, almost?

The rest of the stage is just black. There’s no more set. There’s not even a blue screen to represent daylight. Just black. The actors talk as though it is daytime but it looks like the middle of the night – the salon even has a window, and all you can see is black.

Are the designers attempting to represent the outside world as the abyss? Is it a commentary on the insignificance of the outside world, of society, compared to the caring community they have crafted in the salon? That doesn’t really make sense, for they all have loving families outside of the salon. Without a clear explanation, one wonders if it’s just about saving cost, and that cheapens the production (literally).

The (very 80s) costumes are as wonderful as the finely decorated set. Each character has their own aesthetic (e.g. Shelby’s obsession with pink). As time passes, the women’s wardrobes and hairstyles change significantly (except Truvy, who is clearly a hardcore Dolly fan and, all these decades later, probably still has the same hairstyle!). The aesthetic changes correspond with changes in their lives and, more simply, signify time passing by.

The script, itself, is very funny. The second act contains the iconic line “All gay men have track lighting”. I remember hearing that quote years back and Googling where it was from, but I’d totally forgotten it was Steel Magnolias – like I said, I had not heard of the play until a tour was announced (or, rather, I’d heard about it but forgot about it).

Steel Magnolias is a heartwarming play, and though the final scene offers a heartbreaking revelation, the women’s response to it is inspiring. The play embodies “bittersweet”. It’s nothing groundbreaking but it’s a fun, feel-good and emotional exploration of female friendship, with relatable characters and timeless themes.

It’s a real shame that the tour is ending three months earlier than initially planned, with the final 12 dates cancelled. If you can make any of the remaining dates and fancy a sweet couple of hours that don’t require you to think too much, head on over to Truvy’s!


Steel Magnolias runs at The Lowry (Lyric Theatre) until February 25 and tours the UK until April 22.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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