Pictures: Pamela Raith

Steel Magnolias

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Six women, different generations, different lives and stories, bonded together by undying friendship, facing life, past, present and future with the same sardonic optimism and humour in Robert Harling’s bittersweet semi-autobiographical play.

It is set in the fictional backwater of Chinquapin in Louisiana, a place you suspect where the description one-horse town was invented. This is rural, small-town America. The pace is slow and easy and life here revolves around Southern beauty.

Well, not exactly beauty as such, more Truvy’s Beauty Parlour, the meeting place, den, hideout and sanctuary, run by Truvy, played with wonderful Southern charm and biting wit by Lucy Speed.

Truvy’s salon has a poster declaring “The Higher the Hair the Closer to God” and under her mountain of hair Truvy must be close to touching distance with the Almighty.

We open with her auditioning Annelle for a job. Annelle has quite a journey in the splendid hands of Elizabeth Ayodele. She is a shy youngster, a newcomer to the town, with a husband . . . maybe . . . grows into a hard drinking hell raiser, then finds God, in the town’s tub thumpin’ revival tent, evangelical Baptists, who, incidentally, manage a singalong Messiah as part of their Christmas celebrations. Who knew George Frederic did a karaoke version . . .

Then there are the regulars with pride of place going to Shelby, played in a delightful cloud of pink by Diana Vickers. Shelby is getting married that afternoon, so is first in the queue for shampoo and set.

When she suddenly slumps in the chair we realise all is not well, and we discover it is a hypoglycaemic attack, low blood sugar, the first indication we have of her Type 1 diabetes.

Fussing around her is her mother M’Lynn, played by Laura Main in a fabulous display of the actor’s art, being completely unrecognisable from her better known role as Shelagh Turner in Call the Midwife.

salon pic

Elizabeth Ayodele as Annelle, Laura Main as M'Lynn, Lucy Speed as Truvy and Diana Vickers as Shelby 

In the first act she might be mother of the bride, but she is one of the gang, with a husband who shoots anything that moves protecting his fruit trees. Come the second act though and her despair, lashing out at life, at anyone and everything after her world is torn apart is palpable. We feel her pain and anguish in a bitter, angry speech full of loss and emotion.

The bleak misery is broken though by Clairee, the former mayor’s merry widow, played with a cheerful air by Caroline Harker. Clairee has a nice line in asides and her jokey manner helps keep the peace whenever tensions rise.

With M’Lynn wanting to lash out, Clairee offers up Ouiser as a punchbag. With Harriet Thorpe indisposed in stepped Claire Carpenter to delight us as the curmudgeonly Ouiser, neighbour of M’Lynn, who freely admits she has been in a bad mood for 40 years.

She has had a running battle with M’Lynn’s husband for years, with a magnolia on the border of the two properties a particular bone of contention, with both claiming ownership. M’Lynn and Shelby wisely keep out it, but the magnolia seed for the title has been sown. The flower of Southern beauty.

We learn of Ouiser’s past husbands, her past love and her dog, and Shelby’s attempts at matchmaker to reunite her with one of her old flames.

We learn snatches of all the characters, Truvy’s couch potato husband, and her leaving home sons, one with a girlfriend eliciting Truvy’s only compliment that her tattoos were spelt right.

Then there is Clairee, who loves football, and supports the local high school team, and buys the local radio station covering the games.

And Shelby, who wants a baby, despite doctors telling her it would be dangerous, which leads to a heart rendering and telling scene with M’Lynn. A mother desperate to be happy for her daughter and worried sick at where that happiness could lead.

The action – a couple of hair washes, a spell under a drier, and a manicure – all takes place in the salon. In the first act we are the mirror, the cast looking out at us from their hairdresser’s chairs, drawing us into their world.

Annelle, left, Ouiser (played here by Harriet Thorpe), and Clairee, played by Caroline Harker, behind Shelby and Truvy.

The second act we are looking in, no longer involved, we are observers, the set reversed, the mirrors on the back wall, the chair’s facing away.

The set itself, designed by Laura Hopkins, has a strange feel, a simple salon, in proportion, in its own three sided box, the fourth wall as always the audience, but it doesn’t come close to filling the stage. It is an isolated box surrounded in the open, visible wings by unused spots on tripods, the salon looking almost like a shipping container left behind on an abandoned film set.

But perhaps that was the point, the salon is a sanctuary, a safe haven, warm, and welcoming from a cold desolate world outside. Whatever, it is a set that makes you think and question, an added element, which is no bad thing.

On Press night sound was an issue. Friends on the second row from the stage didn’t have a problem further back words and dialogue were lost, which was a pity. The accents were not a problem, they were fine for our non-Louisianian ears, and consistent, which is the all important factor, but the problem was hearing all the words. Something to address for the rest of the run.

Without giving away too much of the plot, Alabama born Harling, who went to university in Louisiana and owns a historic plantation house there, wrote the play almost as a cathartic exercise.

His younger sister, Susan, had died from complications related to her diabetes, brought on by having become pregnant against medical advice. Her mother had donated a kidney as her daughter’s organs failed but to no avail. She left behind a baby boy

Harling, a would-be actor, was persuaded to write about it to help come to terms with his feelings and what started as a few words to his nephew grew into a short story then quickly grew into a play which opened in 1987 with a subsequent hit film to follow in 1989.

Although not the story of his sister, the emotions, the friendships and the support have an air of authenticity beyond mere fiction. This is a play about friendships, overcoming whatever life can throw at you. Its full of heart, taking you by the hand through a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s funny, uplifting, desperately sad but above all it’s a play about hope and the resilience of the human spirit – the steel of the Southern magnolias in their salon haven.

Its almost 11 years since we saw the magnolias last in bloom at the Alex, and as the years roll away they still give you plenty of laughs, that is until the wisecracks dry up as life casts its darkest shadow and tugs at the heartstrings. Beautifully acted with some wonderful lines and timing, and directed by Anthony Banks, the magnolias will be in flower to 25-03-23.

Roger Clarke


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