Soap queens and theatre grande dames constitute the astutely-assembled cast of David Gilmore’s engaging revival of Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling’s 1987 talk-fest about the lives, loves and losses of six Louisiana women. Best known in its 1989 film adaptation directed by Herbert Ross, Harling’s play is a slight but affectionate and heartfelt affair. Written following the untimely death of the playwright’s sister, the piece unabashedly celebrates the humour, supportiveness and fortitude of a group of (mostly wealthy and all white) Southern women, whose mixture of strength and fragility provides the piece with its title.
Harling’s sharply-drawn crew of characters comprise the widowed Clairee Belcher (Cherie Lunghi) and her sparring partner, the batty curmudgeon Quiser Boudreaux (Cheryl Campbell); the new-to-town Annelle (Kacey Ainsworth); and mother and daughter M’Lynn and Shelby Eatenton (Isla Blair and Sadie Pickering), who gather in the beauty shop owned and run by Truvy Jones (Denise Welch) to gossip, confess and “crack wise.” The piece unfolds over several years, and the main thrust of the plot reveals around the diabetic Shelby’s determination to have a child against doctors’ advice and her mother’s wishes, the fallout from which decision motivates the drama’s inevitable tragic turn.
As with David Esbjornson’s West End production of Driving Miss Daisy last year, fans of Ross’s film may miss the additional scenes and characters that added texture and nuance to the movie, and find the play to be a little thin and static by comparison, the obviousness of the material accentuated. At the same time, the single salon setting - nicely designed here by Helen Goddard - brings a distilled, sharp focus to the piece, and the play seems more convincing, lively and inhabited than did Driving Miss Daisy, as well as a good deal less calculating in its effects than the obnoxious Calendar Girls, a production whose “demographic” this one would seem to target.
Gilmore’s direction can’t be called inspired - proceedings come to a dead halt during what feel like bewilderingly lengthy scene changes - but the actresses keep things as buoyant and as truthful as they can. Responsible for one of the least-heralded great stage performances of recent years as the MND-afflicted matriarch in The Company Man at the Orange Tree a few years ago, Isla Blair gives an understated, moving performance here as M’Lynn. Carefully communicating the character’s concern for her daughter as she takes her first steps into an independent life, Blair brings a wry humour and captivating stillness to the stage, making M’Lynn’s final outburst of anger and grief all the more affecting.
Cherie Lunghi does a witty, elegant job of work as Clairee, and Kacey Ainsworth is funny and touching as she charts Annelle’s shift from timid new recruit to voracious bible-thumper. Denise Welch, better known these days for her appearances in tabloids and on Loose Women than her acting roles, subverts expectations with a warm and endearing performance as Truvy, the role amply filled by Dolly Parton in the film. And an unrecognisable Cheryl Campbell does a full-on comic turn as a squawking, highly-strung Ouiser, moving from what feels like broad caricature into genuine eccentricity; at one priceless moment, she cackles with glee at her own reflection. As Shelby, Sadie Pickering struggles by comparison, hampered by a studied-sounding Southern drawl, but she manages a couple of affecting moments.
Ultimately, Gilmore’s production doesn’t match Ross’s film for emotional impact. But, attuned to the play’s combination of sharp humour and sentiment, it generates its laughs and tears on cue.
At Richmond until 19th May. Full tour dates and details here.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.