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Review of Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling at The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton

Steel Magnolias is perhaps most known for the star-studded 1989 movie rather than this neat and emotional play with comedic undertones. The play by Robert Harling actually came first, by two years, and tells the story of six women, family and friends and their meetings at Truvy's beauty parlour. As time goes on we witness the evolution of this collection of oddball, but not overly caricatured people and the emotional traumas that happen in their lives.

On paper, this play is very chick lit but the film itself is fascinatingly described by one reviewer on IMDB as "A 'Chick Flick' Men Can Enjoy, Too!" They are quite correct as although this conversational piece is at times very hairdresser or ladies chatting over the garden wall like, there is a heart to this story that makes it appealing to both genders.

It helps of course that there is a wonderfully assembled cast, all seemingly completely comfortable with their roles. Di Wyman as proprietor Truvy maintains a lovely confident demeaning while bringing lighthearted moments to many situations, including her willingness to help out in the crying department, "I have a strict policy that nobody cries alone in my presence."

Emma Robson as "I'm new" girl Annelle relaxes into the slow building role as this character develops. Her second act scenes are her best, especially when challenging M'Lynn via her new newly found and totally encapsulating belief. Corinna Leeder as Ouiser makes an immediate impact on proceedings arriving in the best costume of this very well dressed piece. The role is one very suited to her as she eases into the sparky, quick worded delivery and times perfectly some brilliant lines including that classic "very bad mood" one. Lisa Wright cuts a prim and proper figure and more than a little above everyone else persona as Clairee, but more than willing to show her part in the community. Her scene with the potential punchbag of Ouiser is a superb moment, cleverly delivered.

However, for the brilliance of those cast members, there are two exceptional ones from Julia Langley as Shelby and an even more so one from Mindy Robinson as her mother M'Lynn. It is true that these are the two strongest characters of the play and are the driving forces of the story, however, performance is key and these two bring an incredible amount to the stage. Julia is at all times full of life and vitality as Shelby and makes all the events, therefore, lay much heavier on the audience as they live through them. She also handles that excellent attack scene with remarkable realism.

Mindy though brings about perhaps one of the strongest emotional performances that I have seen in an amateur show. Wordlessly and silently contemplating under the hairdryer in response to Shelby's news and then creating a remarkably powerful performance in that final scene leaving many of the audience themselves in tears. It truly is an amazing scene expertly delivered.

The play is not without its faults though as there are a few staging issues with sightlines occasionally broken due to the dominance of the two main hairdressing seats. This leaves from one side of the theatre cast members on the back seats totally obscured at times, which if non-active is fine. However often they are involved in the conversation and are invisible to some of the audience for too long. There are also a couple of very long scene changes which regular readers will know are the bane of my theatre viewing life. Great song to listen to during them though.

So, a highly entertaining play, which has a fair quota of really funny moments considering the direction the piece goes in. It turns on a sixpence early on as the drama rears its head and builds well to a quite incredible final scene. This is very clearly a chick lit play, but one which will definitely appeal to the chaps out there as well.

Performance reviewed: Wednesday 17th May 2017 at the Playhouse Theatre, Northampton.


Steel Magnolias runs at the Playhouse Theatre, Northampton until Saturday 20th May 2017.

For full details of the Playhouse Theatre visit their website at http://www.theplayhousetheatre.net/
and can be found on Twitter @PlayhouseNTH or on Facebook at 
https://www.facebook.com/groups/1104164619627708/

The cast of Steel Magnolias. Photo: Vicki Holland

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