ROBERT Harling’s family-inspired play Steel Magnolias was first performed 35 years ago, since when it has become a regular choice on stages across the English-speaking world. Many people know it from the classic 1989 film, and its popularity crosses professional and amateur productions. But it’s not all plain sailing – the professional national tour that came to Bath earlier this year was abruptly halted in its tracks a fortnight later, and questions must have been asked about the play’s continuing appeal.
Anthony von Roretz and the Salisbury Studio Theatre company have neatly knocked those questions on the head with the current production, on at their Ashley Road HQ from 10th to 15th July. The sensitive and attentive reading of Harling’s words – first intended as a tragedy commemorating the short life of his sister, but turned by the laughter of the audience into a bitter-sweet comedy – brought new and tough tenderness to the story.
It is set in Harling’s childhood home, Natchitoches, and for this production Studio newcomer Jemma Clark not only designed and dressed the set but painted a backdrop for the central window which authentically captures the Louisiana countryside outside Truvy’s beauty salon.
The unique selling points of this production are that mother and daughter Jenny and Liv Wordley play Truvy (the Dolly Parton character) and her new assistant Annelle, and that there is a much more spiky and realistic relationship between M’Lynne and her daughter Shelby, dissipating the rather sentimental approach taken by Sally Field and Julia Roberts in the award-winning film.
One of the dangers of an all-female cast is that high and light voices can become monotonous, and here not only do the actors have to avoid that pit, but also to maintain a Deep Southern accent. The six Steel Magnolias do it magnificently – their accents are SO MUCH BETTER than those striven-for-but-missed in the earlier professional tour. Just like Shelby, Robert Harling’s sister Susan died of complications from Type I Diabetes, just after giving birth to a son. Harling, then an actor in New York, wrote the play as a way to tell the child (when he was old enough) about his mother.
So it is deeply felt and deserves its reputation as a three-hanky weepie. In this Salisbury production the keeper of the Kleenex is Samantha Luckman’s M’Lynne. This is a magnificent performance, full of passion and humour, pathos and anger, determination and resignation.
The characterisation is brilliantly balanced by those of the widowed socialite Clairee (Caroline Butcher) and the neighbourhood grouch and old-southern-woman-who-grows-tomatoes Ouiser (Sue Tranter), as well as Jenny Wordley’s witty and wise Truvy and Liv Wordley’s timid, to be born again Annelle. Newcomer Lynnette Barnes has the difficult role of the headstrong Shelby, whose pinkness is the colour-wash of the show.
You might think you know Steel Magnolias – I did, after almost a dozen productions and a visit to the Louisiana setting – but you’ll find new jewels and nuances in this exceptional production. If you don’t know it, now’s the time to discover this heart-warming play.