views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Steel Magnolias
The Hope Theatre
19th August 2016


Jo Wickham as Truvy

Photography provided by The Hope Theatre

I really hate chick flicks. Whilst I'll quite happily review anything most of the time (which is reflected in the wide variety of star ratings I hand out), I point blank refuse to review garbage on my birthday. It's the one day in the year that if I must work, I will read the latest stack of press releases beforehand and hunt down what looks like a safe bet. Now, you may know Steel Magnolias as a 1989 classic weepy film, but this is Robert Harling's original script for the play that came before the movie everyone has seen. Ordinarily, it just wouldn't appeal to me, however I've learned to have faith in director Matthew Parker's judgement. That faith was rewarded with a ticket to another uniquely brilliant production, with plenty of humour, gut-wrenching emotion and truly captivating performances.

In Chinquapin's top salon, hairdresser and beautician Truvy (Jo Wickham) is preparing for a very big day. Regular client Shelby (Samantha Shellie) is getting married, and she and her mother, M'Lynn (Stephanie Beattie) need to look their absolute best. Although brand new hire, Annelle (Ariel Harrison), is besides herself with worry at potentially getting their hair wrong, Shelby seems remarkably relaxed about letting a newly-qualified technician loose on the mother of the bride. Perhaps because she has other things on her mind... Initially the story seems framed as one big superficial chinwag, however it does have far more depth to it than the garish decor and girly chit chat suggests.

Following the success of his in-house productions Lovesong of the Electric Bear and Sea Life, it's safe to say that Parker is confident he can transform his little theatre into anything he wants. Steel Magnolias retains the same hallmark attention to detail and strong characterisation, but it is otherwise nothing like those two hits that have gone before. For starters, the stage looks like Cath Kidston has thrown up all over it with a variety of floral prints and pink shades. It's unashamedly feminine, with set designer Rachael Ryan capturing Truvy's personality perfectly in the set design. It is after all effectively an extension of the proprietor's home and she's not the beige, minimalist type.

From the bottles of hairspray to the salon sink complete with running water, there's a very realistic feel to Ryan's set. Furthermore, given how close we are to both sides of the stage, it does feel as if we're sitting patiently, awaiting our turn for Truvy or Annelle to add some 1980s big, over-volumised curls to our hair. (Thankfully they don't, I'm not sure any of us in the audience could have pulled that off.) The Hope not only looks and sounds like any busy salon, it smells like one too thanks to liberal bursts of the aforementioned hairspray. As well as Ryan's thoughtful set and costumes, the hair and wigs by Lidia Patrizia are beautiful and deserve a mention. As any woman will tell you, going from long hair to short hair is a bloody big deal, and Patrizia's work adds a necessary touch of realism to some poignant scenes.

The ensemble of Steel Magnolias

Photography provided by The Hope Theatre

Having previously impressed us in Days of Hope and Into the Woods, Wickham is a veritable force of nature as Truvy, not merely the salon owner but the mother hen of the group, clucking around after all her chicks. Wickham's character is warm and friendly at all times ("I have a strict policy that no one cries alone in my presence"), radiating a real sense of having gone into beauty to take care of people and make them feel good about themselves. When you consider that Wickham is playing a role that Dolly Parton once made famous, those are pretty big shoes to fill and yet Wickham makes it feel like this part was written specifically for her. No small feat given Parton's very natural and sympathetic performance.

In the first act, Harrison makes for a wonderfully jumpy Annelle, desperate to prove herself and reluctant to speak her mind. She stammers through her conversations with Truvy and her customers, and we witness her struggle to stay calm as M'Lynn stands up during a treatment and she feels compelled to follow her around clinging onto her towel and wanting to ask her to sit back down, yet unable to say anything that might offend. The conflict and panic is visible in her expression, and it's these little touches that could easily go unnoticed that show the care in Parker's work. It doesn't matter if not everyone will pick up on it: he will, and anything less than perfect is not an option.

Shellie is full of optimism as Shelby, eager to marry and hopeful for a child even though it may not be possible due to her precarious health. For someone carrying such a burden, she still seems to be so innocent and youthful, making M'Lynn's overprotectiveness seem understandable. As for Beattie, her closing scenes are delivered with such raw emotion that we feel our chests tighten and it's physically painful to watch her very visceral grief. Having revisited the equivalent scenes in the movie version, it's fair to say that Beattie does it far better than Sally Field, conveying her character's overwhelming sorrow whilst maintaining some decorum. After all, M'Lynn has a number of other family members to support and we sense that she simply cannot allow herself to fall apart properly. Sharing a few tears with her friends in the salon is the closest she'll ever get to total collapse.

As for the rest, Maggie Robson is a delightfully grumpy Ouiser, with a bark much worse than her bite. Lin Sagovsky balances her out as Clairee. As supporting actresses, Robson and Sagovsky get to swan in and out with some deliciously witty one-liners and barbs. They both get plenty of chuckles, with everyone in this six-strong all-female cast contributing to the very credible feeling of camaraderie between the ladies of Chinquapin. It's just beautifully acted.

The only real criticism I have of this production is that the company made me cry on my birthday, which I understand is not a very objective or helpful piece of feedback. However, given how much they also made me roar with laughter, I'm willing to forgive the reluctant sniffles. Whatever your thoughts on chick flicks, Steel Magnolias is undeniably a must-see piece of theatre.

Steel Magnolias ran from 9th August to 3rd September 2016 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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