There aren’t many of us – mainly women – who haven’t sat down with a large box of Mansize tissues and a bottle of wine to spend a bit of downtime watching Steel Magnolias on DVD.
Dismissed as “sappy” (mainly by men), it remains to this day a hugely popular “women’s” film. Why do we like it? For the same reason we like the stage play of the same name. It’s a well-crafted, wonderfully told story that features leading roles exclusively for women – a rarity both on stage and screen.
Female empowerment aside we can all connect to elements of Robert Harling’s drama that’s set in a small town beauty salon and is based on the death of his own sister through diabetes.
Islington’s Hope Theatre is tiny and, at this time of year, a little sultry. It’s the perfect location to replicate the steamy heat of Chinquapin, Louisiana, where a converted garage, now Truvy’s Beauty Salon, is the hub of social life for the ladies of the town.
It’s a place to go to share secrets, recipes and nail polish wisdom, get a big hairdo, swap gossip and meet friends.
Steel Magnolias opened at the theatre last week and Matthew Parker’s skilfully directed ensemble piece doesn’t falter for a second. I’ll warn you now to take a bag load of hankies. Even hardened theatre critics were welling up on press night.
Its characters are eccentric, ornery, secretive, comical and cynical. Harling’s closely observed dialogue bristles with hysterically funny one-liners that can only have come from him hiding behind a wash basin in a hairdressers and noting down the waspish comments of the clients.
The ladies flit in and out to have their hair washed, rollered and hairsprayed to majestic bouffants, their nails coated in candy pink and their egos massaged with sugary compliments and the latest gossip from the imposing Truvy (flame-haired Jo Wickham with a big curly ’80s hair-do that was embarrassingly familiar).
“I’ve always been built for comfort not speed,” declares Truvy whose slacker husband is never seen but frequently the butt of jokes.
Her new stylist, Annelle (Ariel Harrrison) makes a bad cup of coffee but a strong impression on the clientele who pump her for salacious details of her past.
M’Lynn (Stephanie Beattie) works in mental health and could spill the beans about neighbours they all know – but won’t, while Clairee (Lin Sagovsky), widow of the town’s former mayor, is at a lose end until she buys a radio station to keep her occupied.
But the maddest of the bunch is wide-eyed Ouiser, (superbly played by Maggie Robson) who is a perpetual moaner and sarcastically dismisses pretty much everything in life. “I don’t see plays,” she confesses, “Because I can nap at home for free!”
And when the grey-haired Clairee says she is playing “Hard to get” with a new beau, Ouiser can’t help but murmour: “At her age she should be playing beat the clock!”
Steel Magnolias is told in three acts over the course of about a year, starting with the run-up to the wedding of M’Lynn’s daughter, the bubbly Shelby.
This effervescent Southern belle, played by Samantha Shellie, with a divine accent that’s as honeyed as warm molasses, wraps herself in pink accoutrements and hesitantly looks forward to her marriage.
But the only dark cloud on her sunny horizon is that doctors have warned her, as a diabetes-sufferer, not to have children.
Later we see Shelby defy everyone to give birth to a little boy only for tragedy to strike.
All six performances are dynamic and deeply compelling. Shellie lights up the stage as the doomed Shelby whose future is sealed the moment she walks into the salon to have her hair styled like the equally ill-fated Princess Grace.
Stephanie Beattie’s M’Lynn holds the audience to rapt attention with a noble and beautifully delivered speech revealing her daughter’s plight. You could hear sniffles and sobs as everyone tried not to embarrass themselves.
Wickham’s Truvy is bold and sassy and Ariel Harrrison’s born-again Annelle your typical Deep South trailer park trash hoping for a better life.
Such is the global appeal of this bittersweet, poignant and deeply moving story that I’d love a director to set a production in Hackney, among the Afro-Caribbean community, or even in Liverpool. We all recognise these larger-than-life characters from our everyday lives. Perhaps that’s why it has become such a firm favourite.
Hilarious and emotional, Steel Magnolias plays at The Hope Theatre until September 3.
Steel Magnolias, playing in the steamy heat of Islington’s Hope Theatre, has big hair & a big heart. It’s a big tissue weepie, wonderfully acted and skilfully directed.