Review: Steel Magnolias (touring) Nottingham Theatre Royal

Steel Magnolias, April 11th 2023, Theatre Royal Nottingham

Steel Magnolias is a tribute to the women in writer Robert Harling’s own life. The title of the play refers to both their inner strength and the state flower of Louisiana where the action is set, which, like its women, is beautiful, delicate and easily bruised. First staged in the mid-1980s and later adapted into a film starring Dolly Parton, Sally Field and a young Julia Roberts, the play transports us back to a time of big hair and bold fashions. 

The play is set in a small town beauty salon run by its big-hearted owner Truvy (Lucy Speed) and her new assistant Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele). In this staunch women’s territory where men fear to tread, Truvy is quick to educate her protégée that there is ‘no such thing as natural beauty’.  

The action centres around the relationship between mother and daughter M’Lynn (Laura Main) and Shelby (Diana Vickers), beginning on the day of Shelby’s wedding. Shelby’s marriage appears to be doomed from the outset and her ongoing struggle with type-1 diabetes provides the play’s dramatic narrative. She pursues her desire to be a good wife and mother at all costs, claiming that she would rather have ’30 minutes of wonderful, than a lifetime of special’. 

Vickers is a sweet and sassy Shelby whilst Main captures the right balance of concern and motherly affection. Their relationship is believable and their Southern accents convincing. M’Lynn’s emotional breakdown in the final scene is genuinely heart-wrenching.

M’Lynn’s angry neighbour Ouiser (Claire Carpenter replacing the advertised Harriet Thorpe) and former mayor’s wife Clairee (Caroline Harker) complete the sextet of dames. Carpenter doesn’t quite find Ouiser’s brusque feistiness so that when it’s revealed that she has a softer side in the second half, the contrast in character isn’t really felt. Harker’s Clairee fades somewhat into the background with an accent that drifts all too often back to this side of the Atlantic.

As Annelle, the lost soul turned born-again Christian, Ayodele is commendable but the star of this production is undoubtedly Speed’s Truvy. Blessed with the best one-liners, a charming Southern drawl and a fabulous wardrobe that is just the right side of tacky, Speed turns out a first-rate performance. Alongside Vickers and Main, she stands out in what otherwise would be a fairly mediocre production.

The wood-panelled set is reminiscent of the time and even has a nod to Dolly Parton herself. During the first half the action is played out front, with the salon’s mirrors creating a fourth wall. In the second half however, the perspective is reversed which has the unfortunate effect of dazzling much of the front stalls as the now real mirrors reflect back stage lights onto the audience. 80s-style neon lights frame the action providing a simple yet effective distraction during scene changes which are conducted with ease.

Steel Magnolias has female friendship at its heart and judging by the appreciative audience on opening night of predominantly women, it clearly still has great appeal. The production has been described ‘as cosy as cocoa with a shot of bourbon’, but that combination of course is not to everyone’s taste. 

Steel Magnolias runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday 15th April

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