Hope Theatre, London – until 3 September 2016
Rarely in my reviewing career does a show come along that floors me to the point that I cannot find fault at all. Not even the tiniest criticism. Rarely in my reviewing career does a cast impress me so much that I am practically skipping back to my seat after the interval.
I have found the epitome of fringe theatre in Steel Magnolias. Staged beautifully and intimately at the Hope Theatre, I felt like I was sitting in Truvy’s salon with a window into the lives of these six larger-than-life characters. So in the moment was I that I only needed a set of curlers to complete the look and I could have been another client watching remarkable lives unfold.
Many will be familiar with the film, I haven’t watched it for years so I was completely open-minded, even though I knew the ultimate outcome of the play in advance. It’s written by Robert Harling and directed by Matthew Parker. What Parker has done is worked with the capabilities of the actresses he has in his cast and brought out the best in all of them. Rather than having dwelled on the film version, this play has been set and directed in such a way that makes it stand out as a piece of theatre as opposed to the poor relation to a Julia Roberts movie.
The action doesn’t move from the hub, Truvy’s hair salon, and as the story builds it’s easy to think that M’Lynn (Mother of the Bride who is anxious, but for more reasons than one), Shelby (M’Lynn’s daughter, the play opens on her wedding day), Clairee (widow of the Mayor), Ouiser (an undeterminable yet hilarious character whose dog is on its last legs) and Truvy have a happy-go-lucky time and the comedy of the piece is bounced off from one character to the other, brilliantly. There’s also Annelle, a sketchy new employee with a past that Truvy is keen to uncover. The tone of the play shifts quickly, caused by Shelby’s Diabetic hypo, and this is a pivotal point which not only examines the relationship between mother and daughter, but the dynamics between the other characters.
Getting ready for Shelby’s wedding day
Samantha Shellie plays the head-strong Shelby and she brings the right balance of stubbornness, acquiescence and empathy to a role that could be so easily played as a weak link, given her health issues. She has perfect chemistry with Stephanie Beattie who plays M’Lynn, Beattie has the extraordinary knack of underplaying her part, almost blending her into the background. Then she brings her to the fore with alarming force which gives light, shade and a varity of nuances to M’Lynn. I don’t like to compare this to the film, but I did prefer M’Lynn in the stage version, credit to Beattie’s talents, there. Jo Wickham is deiciously impish as the gossipy Truvy, I feel that Truvy is the glue holding this gang together and that definitely comes across. Lin Sagovsky brought plenty of laughs as Clairee, her banter with Ouiser (Maggie Robson) was a highlight and both actresses have the ability to communicate so much without speech. Robson appears to be particularly adept at subtle gestures that enhance what I see as essentially a comedy part, superbly. Ariel Harrison completes the picture as Annelle, she manages to switch from the nervous new girl to assured Christian (via smoking and drinking) believably. This cast are a solid unit and each individual has at least a moment or two to shine, and shine they do!
One of the pinnacle moments in act two – M’Lynn leans on her friend, Clairee
Shelby’s health is an over-riding theme, sadly, but there’s a steady flow of friendship, love, and transience, too. I have not experienced a play that has reduced me to tears of sadness and then laughter in such quick succession before. This rollercoaster is beautifully performed by a cast who each connect with their characters, from their accents to their facial expressions. It’s a gem of a show and seeing it once is probably not going to be enough!
Photo credits: Hope Theatre