(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 21 September)
Woman may be a delicate blossom, like the white flowers for which Robert Harling named his 1987 play, but women are infinitely less fragile, hence the second word in the title Steel Magnolias. We are in small-town Louisiana in the south of the USA, specifically in a hair-dressing salon. Its proprietor is Truvvy (Sarah Mahony) and she’s just taken on a new-to-town assistant Annelle (Lucy Wells) – a born-again Christian.
The clientle is a faithfull one, using the salon as a neutral meeting-ground, rather like a club. There’s a former mayor’s wealthy widow Clairee (Tina Gray), the slightly eccentric dog-loving Ouiser (Gillian Cally) and mother and daughter M’Lynn (Claire Storey) and Shelby (Gemma Salter).
Shelby is about to be married; she’s also a diabetic. In her mother’s view, the two do not go together, as we see during the course of the drama which coves two-and-a-half years in four scenes. Director Liz Marsh and designers Dinah England (set and costumes) and Chris Howcroft (lighting) take us to the time and place and through the seasons with considerable style and dialect coach Richard Ryder has done sterling work.
The trouble is that those soft Southern inflections are not easily projected into the auditorium. So, though all the performances are very good in themselves, Storey’s long speech in the fourth scene didn’t really come across with all its painful recollection until its peroration.
Which is a pity as by this point we are thoroughly engaged in the human tragedy as well as with the personal crises of various types with which the characters are involved and which they manage to resolve collectively and with considerable finesse through a policy of give and take.
Steel Magnolias runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 10 October.