Steel Magnolias, by Robert Harling, was directed by Joshua Bradley-Hall. It was performed at The Edward Alleyn Theatre from 20th October to 23rd October 2021.
M’Lynn - Gill Daly
Shelby - Hannah Tomlinson
Ouiser - Sheree Clapperton
Annelle - Hayley Blundell
Truvy - Sophie Thompson
Claree - Alex Curran
Director - Joshua Bradley-Hall
Stage Manager - Jan Rae
Assistant Stage Managers - Christa Kronenburg and Tim Devine
Set Design - Clarisse Hassan
Lighting - Roger Orr
Sound - Emily Lamm
Costume - Judy Douglas
Hair and Make-up - Denise Biffin
Poster Design - Clarisse Hassan
by Jane Jones
The action of this comedy-drama takes place over several years and is set entirely in a hairdressing salon in a small fictional town in Louisiana. It revolves around the regular clients, a bunch of diverse local women who gossip and bicker as only long-standing friends can. These are the magnolias of the title – the state flower of Louisiana – who demonstrate their steely resilience in the face of adversity. Far from just a place to get their hair done, the salon is a source of support and friendship, away from their seemingly hopeless men, who either sit on the sofa watching TV all day, go hunting at every opportunity or wind up the neighbours by shooting birds in their back yard. Into the salon comes new girl Annelle, evasive about her background and clearly hiding something; she is taken on as a junior and starts to blossom under the kindly eye of owner Truvy.
You never doubted Sophie Thompson’s Truvy as the welcoming, kindly hairdresser with a heart of gold who was everyone’s friend, and she gave an assured performance. Hayley Blundell as Annelle, with a wonderfully goofy Southern accent, took the character convincingly from a naïve victim to a confident young woman who then turns into a religious zealot. But the focus of the story is Shelby whom we meet on the morning of her wedding. She (spoiler alert) is diabetic and, against medical and maternal advice, subsequently gets pregnant, has the baby but then dies later following a kidney transplant. Hannah Tomlinson captured the optimism of a young bride plotting out her future life, followed by the underlying desperation of her subsequent decisions. Her over-protective mother, M’Lynn, played by Gill Daly, maintains a veneer of affability and affection, but tensions between the two come to the fore every now and again. Perhaps these moments could have been a little sharper to highlight the underlying struggle of a young woman to assert herself against her loving but controlling mother. But M’Lynn’s second-act monologue, when she can no longer put a brave face on her grief and rails against the unfairness of her daughter’s death, moved many audience members to tears.
Providing the lighter moments of the play are former mayor’s widow, Clairee, and M’Lynn’s eccentric and complaining neighbour Ouiser. Alex Curran as Clairee gave a wonderfully droll performance, reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn, as the feisty widow who unexpectedly discovers new interests and who surely has many of the best lines in the play, delivered with fine comic timing and panache. Sheree Clapperton as the suitably cantankerous Ouiser also had her share of killer lines: “I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for forty years”, and was also responsible for the funniest, tension-busting moment in the play when Ouiser offers her up as a punchbag to M’Lynn to vent her grief-stricken fury.
But plays don’t happen without directors and the many artistic and practical decisions that go into a production. The large open stage of the Edward Alleyn Theatre presents challenges especially for an intimate play such as this one, but Joshua Bradley-Hall made excellent use of the space. The simple staging using cheerful checked drapes and a doorway with a pink neon sign over, together with pink-themed furnishings and workwear, was instantly believable as Truvy’s Hair Salon. The furniture was judiciously placed to create several centres of focus according to who was talking, and the glass-less mirror was a very clever way of having the characters at facing workstations without creating a reflective barrier. The break between scenes in both acts was quite long, presumably to give the actors time to change, and here perhaps the music could have been a more prominent element in maintaining the atmosphere. A distinctive regional accent is always a challenge for amateur actors, who don’t have the time or resources that are available to professionals, and at times the accents slipped a little or were hard to understand, which detracted from the delivery of the lines; but, overall, the cast rose to the challenge and worked well together to evoke the small-town Louisiana setting. Credit must also be given for the handling of hair. Anyone who has acted knows that it’s enough of an ask to remember your lines and moves, but to actually dress hair or have your hair dressed without getting distracted…? Respect, ladies!
Joshua and his cast and crew are to be congratulated on this production, our first back in the theatre, which left the audiences entertained and moved, and we can look forward to his next venture into linear or even non-linear-narrative play directing.