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Review: Steel Magnolias (Tour)

★★★★

It’s an often-unspoken ritual for a woman to change their hair to mark the start – or the end – of a chapter in their life.


Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias chronicles the connection between a group of women of varying ages and circumstance as they gather in a Louisiana beauty salon.


Photo by Pamela Raith


Truvy’s salon (designed by Laura Hopkins) has small town charm with wood panelled walls and a poster that states ‘the higher the hair, the closer to God’. As her salon fills on a Saturday morning, the darn tootin’ motherly Truvy (Lucy Speed) and her new assistant, the quiet Annelle with an intriguing past (Elizabeth Ayodele), busy themselves fixing hot drinks and making the salon a home.


Regular M’Lynn (Laura Main) is slightly frenetic as her daughter, the sweet and determined Shelby (Diana Vickers), prepares for her wedding day. Their neighbour Ousier (Claire Carpenter at this performance) has 'been in a bad mood for 40 years' but finds company in former wife of the mayor Clairee (Caroline Harker) who has more money than she knows what to do with.


Vickers is stellar as Shelby. Her quick-witted humour is as sharp as the cutting scissors, but she wraps you up in her heart like a roller.


As pins are set and hair is backcombed, the women titter over local gossip. With the set neatly framed as though it’s a television screen, the effect is intimate and focuses in on the characters that Harling has developed through his own candid observations growing up in the 80s. Some of the script has aged and a couple of the jokes fall a little flat on my newer ears, but it doesn't detract from the authentic and warm staging that has been crafted.


Under Anthony Banks direction the audience act as a mirror, with the women talking directly to us.


Intermittently, the stage goes dark (lighting by Howard Hudson) to signify a time jump. Kitsch Christmas decorations hang during winter and the air con fans whir in the summer heat – though despite the Southern drawl and blush tones, the salon exists in a vacuum and the outside world is referenced only in gun shots and dog barks.


An array of wonderfully voluminous wigs (designed by Richard Mawbey) and a revolving closet of denim jackets, shoulder pads, floral patterned dresses and boiler suits, (courtesy of Debbie Bennett) add pops of delicious nostalgia.


At their lightest the women are bubbly and open, talking about style, friendship, and boys. They embrace their shortcomings – Ousier is a grouch, Clairee misses her social status and M’Lynn is a worrier. Listening to their non-stop conversations is a hit of tonic; like curling up with your girlfriends and righting the world’s wrongs.


When faced with loss in act two, the tone flips - and so does the set in a clever turn from Hopkins. Vibrant chatter is replaced by Shelby’s radio, a device she stated was useful for when you don’t want to feel pressured to talk. In this case, the quiet speaks volumes.


Steel Magnolias is just the dose of TLC you need.

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