Theatre Royal Brighton
Feb 28th 2023
Review: Eric Page
Steel Magnolias is based on the uplifting and inspiring film starring Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts. Following the highs and lows of the lives of six small-town women through difficult times, happy moments and the messy bits in between, the play balances witty dialogue, impacts of illness and death and their effects on this group of closely connected friends. Set in the Louisiana salon owned by brassy, sassy Truvy Jone, we watch the interactions with her regulars and friends. The chatty conversations and shared fascination with perfectly styled hair offering a safe place to seek and offer support to the other women around them.
The first half felt overlong (at 65mins) , but this was partly to do with the distinctly low energy of the performers and some indistinct dialogue due to the soft and slippery drawl of these southern accents, some softer and less slippery than others. Their gossipy interactions and gently social teasing mapping out the small town they all live in, and some yearn to escape from.
The simple set, from Laura Hopkins is 80’s evocative and along with the wild retro costumes from Susan Kulkarni allows this fairly low action play to have a feel of movement. It’s static by its nature, so flipping the set halfway giving us a different view of the salon, and also of the way the characters interact with each other, the mirrors and the audience. Mirror work is always interesting as it works terrifically well on screen but can be difficult to emulate on the wider stage, the cast managed this well.
The second half picked up the pace, with a much stronger focus on the narrative , allowing some of the sharper lines to land properly and the laughter pick up.
The all-female cast offered up a range of experiences, but with a noticeable difference in effectiveness. Robert Harling’s play, which on the surface looks like a cross between Hairspray and The Real Housewives of Louisiana is a much darker beast than its camp frothy presentation would suggest. With deep themes explored from the fragilities and resilience of the five women who’s lives intersect in the salon. Their mutual obsession with hair and beauty allowing an exploration of society, life changes, friendships and society’s attitudes towards women. This is mostly handled well but for this ensemble cast to work well everyone must be on the same level. This evening it was an uneven show. The key characters should radiate compassion, pinning everything together, underpinning the sharing and pain of the plot, I felt it was unconvincing. Plenty of laughter, few tears. The funny lines landing but the emotional connections flickering. Unlike the wigs, which are 10’s across the board, huge, delightful, fun, vintage backcombed to hell werk, well done Richard Mawbey for your wig work here.
The audience loved this show, a very full house enjoying both the familiar cast and the familiar lines from the film, most worked into this production, but oddly given a vastly different focus. Only Harriet Thorpe’s Ouiser given a delightful thumping grumpy presence having the same heft of dialogue.
The play is about the resilience of women and the way they support each other in a myriad of ways, sharing experience, opportunities and learning to keep their friendships afloat whilst dealing with the turbulence of death, marriages and births, and the always offstage but mostly supportive men in their lives. We are supposed to see the steel inside their softness, understand that their vulnerabilities and suffering have given them a tenacity and ability to see the love and urge each other to grab at the passion of live, it’s fleeting promise. Although amusing and engaging, with some solid comic throw away lines and one stand out emotional scene of grief expressed, it felt froth with no firmness.
But I’m going to go along with the Old Southern Wisdom shared by salon owner Trudy ‘Why don’t we just focus on the joy of the situation?”, of which this production offers up life affirming, wise cracking, big haired happiness in spades. Pass the Elnet!
Until March 4th
For more info or to book tickets: Theatre Royal Brighton Website
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