Steel Magnolias, Bath Theatre Royal and touring

WHEN a stage play is rapidly turned into a wildly successful movie, it is very hard for the average audience to rid its memory of the images of the starry leading actors. So it is with Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, immortalised in 1990 on film by Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Shirley McLean and Daryl Hannah – plus the “extras” brought in to bulk out the story.

Now, 36 years since it was first performed, there’s a new UK tour, for which director Anthony Banks has sought a new look for the one-set, six-character play. It’s difficult. Harling based his story around his mother and his sister, deeply rooted in their Louisiana community, navigating the well-trodden route between fragile Southern blossoms and iron- willed towers of strength for their families and friends.

This is a story of female support systems. M’Lynn, mother of two teenage boys, a diabetic daughter (and a screwball husband), relies on the women she has known all her life, meeting them at the beauty parlour next door every Saturday. They see her through joy, fear and despair. As beautician Truvy says, her favourite thing is laughter through tears.

The current tour has a clever set, designed by Laura Hopkins, which “flips” at the interval, showing the salon from two sides. All the favourite lines are there, and the audience at Bath was clearly waiting for them. It’s a bit like “a handbag” in The Importance of Being Earnest when Clairee says “Hit her!” and pushes Ouiser into the path of M’Lynn’s fists. And whatever they did worked. It was strangely moving, as was Annelle’s progress through the play.

Laura Main, best known as Call the Midwife’s Nurse Shelagh Turner, takes the central maternal role with huge skill and sensitivity, and an unfaltering Southern accent. It is those accents that can cause problems for Steel Magnolias – six women with similar voices and unfamiliar vowels.

When Harriet Thorpe, who plays the curmudgeonly Ouiser, comes on stage, it’s a burst of energy and power. Elizabeth Ayodele brings out new facets of Annelle and Lucy Speed relishes all the chances to out-Dolly as the marvellous Truvy. Diana Vickers is the very pink Shelby, fighting through illness, marriage and motherhood until her body gives out. Caroline Harker, as wealthy widow Clairee, struggles not only with the drawl but with a ghastly set of clothes and a fright wig. Perhaps this was intended to distance her from Dukakis’s elegance and slow delivery, but it did her no favours, and continued to jar until the very effective and touching final scene.


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