Wednesday 5 April 2023

Steel Magnolias

 Curve, Leicester

4th April, 2023

That's what my mind says. I wish somebody would explain that to my heart

Robert Harling’s 1987 play (made famous by the 1989 film starring Julia Roberts and Sally Field) enjoyed a three-year run Off-Broadway. There’s a moment in its second act where the sarcastic Ouiser Boudreaux (‘I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!’) takes pride in not being exposed to culture. Why should she broaden her horizons at the theatre or cinema when she can watch a mini-series at home? It’s a line full of knowing irony considering the play’s success on stage and screen. But for the women of Chinquapin, Louisiana, it’s the local hair salon that provides the biggest form of escape and company. Steel Magnolias, which opened at Curve last night as part of a UK tour, may provide a small slice of southern domestic life, but this drama of familial love and friendship has an enduring and universal appeal.

We are in Truvy’s: a carport-turned-hair salon which provides a home away from home for other women in the neighbourhood. Laura Hopkins’ set design feels authentic and feels like an American salon well worn by its staff and clients: hair on the floor, wooden panels on the wall and strip lights overhead. In the first scene, Shelby (Diana Vickers) is having her wedding hair done. Young and pretty, she appears to have it all and her whole life ahead of her. After we see her have a hypoglycaemic attack brought on by Diabetes, we understand why her mother M’Lynn (Laura Main) is so over-protective. Over the course of two years, we see Shelby grow up. From getting married and insisting she wants a baby of her own despite the possible health implications to becoming a mother and then needing a kidney transplant. And in the final scene (*spoilers follow*) we see M’Lynn prepare for her daughter’s funeral. Remarkably, this was Harling's first play (he also wrote the screenplay), and he has a strong understanding of female friendships and how to craft stage drama. Heartbreak and comedy, as in life, sit alongside each other and there are some genuinely funny one liners. As a domestic drama, it may seem a bit slight 35 years on, but it has an ingratiating quality which still warms the audience. The standing ovation last night certainly accounts for that.

This is aided by Anthony Banks’ production and in particular some excellent performances which bring out the steeliness of the characters’ title description. Lucy Speed keeps the play moving forward as Truvy: big Dolly Parton-esque hair, droll observations, and heaps of southern charm. She also has a nice double act with Elizabeth Ayodele as her evangelical new assistant Annelle. But it’s the touching mother-daughter relationship of Main and Vickers which provides the heart of the story and they both deliver fully-rounded performances. In the first scene, there’s still a child-like goofiness to Shelby as Vickers enjoys drawing out those long southern vowel sounds and rolling her eyes talking about the men in their lives. She then matures through the play along with Main’s realisation that her daughter is no longer a little girl. And in the final scene, M’Lynn’s fury at the injustice of her daughter’s death is excellently-wrought. The fact that one of the most tender points in the play is immediately followed by its biggest laugh is a testament to the cast’s efforts and Harling's writing.

Steel Magnolias plays at Curve, Leicester until 8th April as part of a UK tour until 22nd April. For further information, please visit

Lucy Speed and Diana Vickers in Steel Magnolias. Credit: Pamela Raith

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