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Steel Magnolias

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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In Miss Truvy’s Louisiana beauty parlour, six women discuss the comedy and tragedy of life, analysing the nature of the human condition alongside the nature of their strawberry pie recipes. Passing through a three year time period as quickly as a nail polish dries, Robert Harling’s conversational script is excellent, examining the importance of women in Southern society as mothers and friends without descending into unbearable saccharine.  

It was never going to be easy to follow Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts and Sally Field in Robert Harling’s Academy Award nominated 1989 film, Steel Magnolias. Whilst it would not be fair to judge Upstage Theatre Productions’ interpretation against the iconic chick-flick, director Angela Darcy’s performance has shorn away much of the sensitivity of the original, bleaching the undefined greys and subtleties of the script and leaving it distinctly black and white.

Whilst the group of actresses are undoubtedly cohesive, the performance lacks the artistic awareness of professional theatre. Amidst numerous slip ups and poorly delivered lines, the casts’ accents travel from the American South to the beauty parlours of California, losing much of the wonderful script’s sharp wit in the constant maintenance of Louisiana drawl.  

As Miss Truvy’s rookie hair colourist Annelle, Lucy Mills is heavy-footed and over-reactive, showing very little of the character’s emotional maturation and debasing the drama of the play’s most pivotal scene by trying too hard to look ditzy and, dare it be said, blonde. Lynn Mulvenna’s M’Lynn, too, whilst a likeable stage presence, is disappointingly restrained in the play’s explosive denouement, leaving the conclusion of the piece as uninspiring and as deflated as a buffon without enough mousse.

The production is not without its charm. Amidst the overblown and the underwhelming is Anne McMenemy’s performance as small town entrepreneur, Clairee. Finding a vocal gentleness in her character, McMenemy seems to be the only actress onstage who has thought about the deeper meaning of the play’s title, bringing to her robust performance the delicacy of a magnolia without resorting to the starkness of steel.

Peter Screen’s set design, too, is a well-observed homage to the eighties, covering the walls with floral print and black and white images of once fashionable hairstyles. His intimate staging is well suited to both the conversational script and to the size of the small venue, pulling the audience into the hairdresser’s chair and filling their lungs with the smells of Truvy’s French perfumes.

 It may well have been first night nerves or noxious hairspray fumes which undid what could have been an excellent production. In time, perhaps, the production will improve and, like the unfamiliarity of a new haircut, grow into something altogether more likeable.

- Scott Purvis


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