Steel Magnolias (review)

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STEEL Magnolias is one of those wonderful ensemble pieces that have found a place in modern theatres thanks, in no small part, to the success of Calendar Girls. Suddenly producers have woken up to the fact that actresses of “a certain age” are worthy of stage time and investment.

This one, stolen from the screen, that is running at Milton Keynes Theatre this week, is a cracker with a cast of six who are hugely entertaining for all sorts of reasons. It’s like Loose Women Does Louisiana.

Denise Welch takes Dolly Parton’s screen role as hairdresser come agony aunt Truvy and, in one scene, pays homage to her mentor by giving her own dècolletage its own starring role. When she bent over I thought the men in the front row would need hosing down.

Cheryl Campbell lets her hair down and outrageously scene steals as the eccentric sour-faced Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine in the movie). Her rasping, squawking voice and performance is so over-the-top that even the cast have trouble keeping a straight face. The audience love her.

Magnolias is set in the backwaters of the Deep South, circa mid-1980s, in the beauty parlour of Miss Truvy, whose mantra is: “There is no such thing as natural beauty”. She’s caked in make-up and her bottle-blonde hair is bouffanted to within an inch of its life (ok, it’s a wig, but you get my drift) and she pours her voluptuous figure into a series of Dynasty knock-off figure hugging dresses.

Truvy plays host to the town’s womenfolk who treat the place as a home from home, somewhere to gossip and share their problems while getting a blow-dry and manicure.

She’s taken on a new assistant Annelle, who comes with her own secrets, while the story unfolds about the up-coming marriage of the youngest client Shelby.

It’s a bittersweet tale that reads like a trashy beach novel and puts everyone through the emotional wringer.

It’s very much a girlie play, which is not a criticism, but with a cast of six women and a story set among curlers and perming lotion, there’s not much here for the menfolk.

But there are six tremendous performances from Welch, Campbell, Isla Blair, Cherie Lunghi, Kacey Ainsworth and Sadie Pickering.

There’s obviously a bit of a spitting contest going on among the group over who can come up with the best Deep South accent which adds to the play’s genteel southern humour.

Welch takes it seriously with soft, motherly diction; Lunghi is aiming for length, stretching out the words in her dialogue to give her maximum stage time; Campbell reduces everyone to fits of laughter by trying to sound twice as old and fat; Blair brings to the table a dignified southern lady and Ainsworth a subdued authenticity. Pickering’s monotone accent jarred throughout and became increasingly irritating.

But all the women turn in watchable performances with Isla Blair’s big scene genuinely moving. There were times when the story flagged and could have done with tighter direction and the breaks between the Acts left the audience twiddling their collective thumbs for far too long, but overall it was a story well told.

Steel Magnolias runs until Saturday. For tickets call the box office 0844 871 7652 or go online www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

ANNE COX