Fine polish makes the steel shine

Cheryl Campbell, Cherie Lunghi, Isla Blair, Sadie Pickering, Kacey Ainsworth and Celebrity Big Brother winner Denise Welch

Steel Magnolias

The New Alexandra Theatre


ANYONE who has ever been to the USA's Deep South will know the pace down there is slow and easy – quite civilised really, and Robert Harling's 1987 play captures that over a period of three years in the fictional town of Chinquapin, in northwest Louisiana.

The play is based on Harling's own experiences and feelings when his sister Susan, a diabetic, died after developing leukaemia. His mother had donated a kidney to save her daughter's life but to no avail and Susan died leaving behind a behind a baby boy.

The play, unusual in that it is an all female cast apart from an unseen radio announcer,  is set in Truvy's Beauty Parlour – which, incidentally, must be either one of the most expensive, or the poorest in the world as it seems to survive on just four customers.

There is M'Lynn (Isla Blair) and her daughter Shelby (Sadie Pickering) who is getting married in a wedding themed on the colours blush and bashful, or pink and pink, as M'Lynn would have it.

Then there is Ouiser (Cheryl Campbell) a grouchy, two-time widow who denies being crazy “I have just been in a very bad mood for 40 years”.

The final regular is Clairee (Cherie Lunghi), recently widowed, rich former wife of the town mayor.

Denise Welch was missing because of a family illness which meant understudy Lisa Peace was thrown into the breech, or at least the salon as Truvy and apart from a couple of instances of verbal juggling with lines to get the words heading in the same direction as the script she did a fine job.

She must have been grateful to Cherie Lunghi at one point though when the experienced RSC actress fielded a fumbled, floundering line and kept the plot on track.

The final member of the cast was Annelle (Kacey Ainsworth) fresh out of college and given her first job as the curtain opens.

Kacey Ainsworth as the fresh from college hairdresser Annelle who grows into the intimate circle of friendship

She is young but with a past – and a past, or indeed a present or a future, ripe for gossip is what keeps small town America alive. In the three year's of the play she starts as naïve, becomes a good time girl before finding God and becoming a born again – and again and again – Christian and eventually, heavy with child as they say, she has almost become normal.

The play centres on small town gossip and tittle-tattle among old friends, talking of relationships, husbands, friends and familiy, with youngsters Shelby and Annelle taken under maternal wings. Life for the six revolves around the beauty salon, the only set, designed by Helen Goddard - and very realistic it is too, we even have hair really being washed and curlers really applied.

Shelby, a Type 1 diabetic is warned she should not have children but gets pregnant in any case and although Jack Junior is premature he survives but at the cost of Shelby's kidneys.

We all know the play is heading towards a tragedy somewhere along the line or there will be no point to the evening and when it finally happens it is low key and we only find out once it has happened.

M'Lynn's final anguish in an outburst full of pain and anger is quite moving. A mother losing a child strikes a raw nerve with any parent in the audience. It is not the natural order of things. Not the way it is meant to be. Every parent feels more than just sympathy.

Yet even then M'Lynn could find some comfort of sorts: “Oh god. I realize as a woman how lucky I am. I was there when that wonderful creature drifted into my life and I was there when she drifted out. It was the most precious moment of my life.”

The cast gel together well and really do appear to be old friends who have met for years in the female preserve of the local beauty salon with that easy banter and leg pulling which men believe is their preserve.

And the ladies have some splendid lines between them with my favourite from Truvy talking about her son: “Louie brought his new girlfriend over, and the nicest thing I can say about her is all her tattoos are spelled correctly.”

Directed by David Gilmore the pace is relaxed, although a tad faster at times and a tad shorter - it runs to more than two and a half hours - would not go amiss, and the result is the gentlest of comedies with some genuinely funny lines and some believable acting adding a polish to the steel of the Magnolias.

The Southern drawl accents, which can be a problem, were consistent and sounded reasonably authentic but, more importantly, all the cast sounded as if they came from the same neck of the woods with the same speech patterns which all helps an audience to accept the characters in what was a entertaining evening. To 26-05-12.

Roger Clarke

Incidentally what has happened to theatre etiquette? The cast most inconveniently started both the play and the second act without waiting for members of the audience to end their conversations forcing people to carry on talking with the distraction of a  play being performed on stage, one poor group had to talk through the action for three or four minutes at the start of the second act.

Surely the cast could just sit quietly and patiently on stage and wait until conversation has died down before they start doing their acting  . . . or alternatively of course, people could always shut up when the lights dim and the curtain rises. 

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