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FringeReview UK 2023

Steel Magnolias

Trafalgar Theatre Productions Limited.

Genre: American Theater, Biographical Drama, Comedic, Drama, Historical, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Directed by Anthony Banks, Set Design Laura Hopkins, Costume Designer Susan Kulkarni, Wigs Designer Richard Mawbey, Lighting Design Howard Hudson, Composition & Sound Design Ben and Max Ringham.

Associate Director Charlie Kember, Costume Supervisor Debbie Bennett, Wigs Supervisor Craig Forrest-Thomas, Prop Supervisor Becks Chan, Casting Director UK Serena Hill, Dialect Coach Elspeth Morrison.

Till March 4th and touring


There’s a reason stars jostled to appear in Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias. His 1988 debut play is even better known from the screenplay Harling immediately adapted starring Sally Field, Julia Roberts (her first major role), Shirley McClaine Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis and Daryl Hannah. Based on his own family’s story its truth spoke so movingly even filming was shot on location, and hasn’t dated despite its specific setting in 1983-85.

The play though is continually produced and this Theatre Royal Brighton production directed by Anthony Banks is almost uniformly excellent, the acting of the six women a joy. Last here in April 2012, do try to catch it.

Noting the way women clammed up whenever men arrived, Harling wanted a space where they could meet and act without that inhibiting influence. So he chose the beauty parlour/hairdressers of Truvy Jones (Lucy Speed) with her famous “There’s no such thing as natural beauty”. Dialect coach Elspeth Morrison conjures wonders from the cast speaking in overlapping Louisiana accents, sometimes so dense it’s hard to catch the kern and snap of their speech.

Speed’s sharp-witted golden-hearted Truvy creates a welcoming space where women literally let their hair down and are here convincingly. Washed, brushed and curled (Speed in particular adept), the salon rhythms inform the way women meet, gossip, squabble, proclaim life-changing decisions. We see her taking on Annelle Dupuy (Elizabeth Ayodele) as assistant after a trial (quietly improving when Annelle’s back’s turned). Speed’s able to centre her character as both in charge yet facilitating everyone else’s sense of becoming: you see women literally blossom here.

At the heart of her clientele are the mother M’Lynn Eatendon (Laura Main) and daughter Shelby (the effervescent Diana Vickers), about to be married to another somewhat useless male. Despite or perhaps because of gunshots and dog barks (The Ringham brothers excellent in discreet sound, though the radio fuzz is distracting), you get the feeling men here have distinctly undersized… self-respect. Shelby’s obsessed with pink, and morphs from that having a baby of her own, despite her diabetes. Vickers crafts a lyrical arc of affirmation, fun, mild self-mockery and yearning for what she’s been advised not to try for. Hers is an outstanding performance, full of a generous young woman making a bid for the fullest life possible.

Main makes M’Lynn a mix of baffle-headed decency and someone continually forced to adapt to the shocking pink of her daughter’s new – life, bid for freedom, changing mores. Her great moment comes late on, where Main cuts through every learned inhibition to express the most powerful truth of all.

Clairee Belcher (Caroline Harker) is one of those regulars who can amble in and affably wait her turn, providing local gossip – despite being so rich she can and does buy the local radio station. And isn’t quite sure what to do with an old flame. By this time Annelle’s been given shelter in one of Truvy’s son’s old rooms – and the joy of this play is there’s no need for clunky reveals: Annelle gets God later on and eventually much else, in a Chekhovian evolution Ayodele brings off with an ultimately devilish sense of humour.

Ouiser Boudreaux (Harriet Thorpe) is the fire-cracking exception, crashing in and stopping the phone ringing as she vents furies at the world, at least twice. Thorpe’s particularly good at bringing out that edge of bewilderment at the heart of Ouiser’s fury, which makes her soft side the more explicable.

It’s a play that needs relishing and sharp ears – cast are s attuned to listening to each other and expressing the pitch and yaw of their expression that you’re almost bound to miss something. Overall though, it makes no odds as this sucker-punch play is all heart and ensemble.

Laura Hopkins’ single set is ideal: a haven. We see it from front and back (merely switching sides and changing the back wall). It’s a naturalistic shack-style salon set inside the stage, bounded with Howard Hudson’s lighting – including a fluorescent surround strip (pioneered by Miriam Buether) – and an outer and inner door with all the 1980s accoutrements of the trade including a few old spaceship-style hair-drying helmets, working sink. Special shout-out to Richard Mawbey’s wigs and Susan Kulkarni’s 1980s costumes, including shocking pink triumphs through to midwest frump. Uniquely moving, it’s a night worth anyone’s time, with truths that resonate long after the curtain.