The Hope Theatre
The heat probably didn’t help. Despite making fans readily available at box office, The Hope Theatre’s tiny auditorium was stiflingly hot. This prompted much flapping of programmes, and a great deal of sympathy for the cast, forced to don jumpers, coats and multiple layers as part of their 80s-tastic costumes.
Steel Magnolias is probably best known for the 1989 film starring Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts, which follows the lives of a group of female friends and the various trials and tribulations of their lives. The original stage version is now playing at The Hope Theatre with Robert Harling’s original script, based on a real life family tragedy. Despite the laughs in this particular production coming thick and fast, it is not without its flaws.
The audience enters and are immediately placed into the Louisiana beauty shop in which the play takes place, surrounded by garish decorations, plenty of hair supplies and retro beauty ads. The cheerful mood is instantly set. The audience is so close that it is as if they too are sat inside the hairdressers, listening in on everyone’s conversations.
The thrust stage added to the immersive effect, but resulted in poor sight lines for anyone not in the front rows. This may have been due to space limitations, but the nature of the play means the cast regularly sit down and are completely obscured.
Constantly on her feet however is Ariel Harrison as born-again Christian Annelle. Harrison is nothing short of a delight, bestowed with some hilariously ridiculous lines and growing before our eyes from a nervous young girl to a comfortable, confident woman. Yet Annelle’s own plotline seems to be over before it’s even begun. We get an intriguing situation set up – a runaway criminal husband, an abandoned wife made homeless – but never receive any kind of pay off, with that particular thread wrapped up in a throwaway line later on.
And therein lies the main issue with Steel Magnolias – the audience is never quite allowed to get fully invested in the story. We’re given a glimpse into these characters lives and asked to care, but we’re never given enough to care about.
The script is very episodic. Each scene takes place months after the last one and the audience is left scrambling to catch up with events that have all happened off stage. It’s infuriating that we never get to witness half of what we hear about, with incidents relayed via gossip in this purgatory of a setting, and Harling’s script veers dangerously close to saccharine.
Hairdresser Truvy seems to serve little purpose other than a sounding board for everyone around her and to throw in some clichéd ‘Southern wisdom’ every so often (which is a shame because Jo Wickham makes the most of the part with an honest and charming performance) and Stephanie Beattie as M’Lynn is criminally underutilised until one hell of a final speech, the most emotionally affecting dialogue in this entire show. It is a tribute to Beattie’s acting skill that saves this from being too little too late, turning her into the surprise star of the show.
Happily Maggie Robson seems utterly immune to the scripts flaws, playing neighbourhood harridan Ouiser with perfectly pitched grumpiness and setting up some of the best jokes of the night. “I’m playing hard to get.” Ouiser announces disdainfully, in regards to a new admirer.
Lin Sagovsky as Clairee tuts derisively “Yeah? At your age you should be playing ‘beat the clock’.”
Easy, very funny, but ultimately underwhelming, Steel Magnolias is perhaps best left to the admirers of the film.