Many will fondly remember the 1989 film Steel Magnolias. At the time, its star-studded line-up read like the Who’s Who of women in Hollywood – Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah, and Olympia Dukakis. It seemed everyone who was anyone wanted to get in on this story of female friendship in Deep South USA.
Robert Harling’s emotional roller-coaster of a screenplay, based on the true story of his sister’s life and the women he saw growing-up in Louisiana, was loved by audiences and critics alike. But while the film’s success went global, surprisingly his earlier stage-play, on which the film was based, hasn’t enjoyed the same exposure.
This makes its current UK tour a rare treat. It is based on Harling’s original script, which is very close to the screenplay. The main difference: here the action is confined to a small-town beauty salon, owned by quick-witted and glamorous, Truvy Jones (a high-energy Lucy Speed) who gives more than a nod to Dolly Parton with her high, bouncing blonde curls and nipped-in waist. And, just in case anyone could miss the reference, there are photos of Dolly adorning the walls.
Truvy’s salon is both her place of work and a haven away from her ‘sofa slug’ of a husband. It’s the cosy cabin where the town’s women bring their worries and gripes and leave with more than just their hairstyle refreshed. Truvy’s motto is: ‘there’s no such things as natural beauty’, and that philosophy stretches to everthing that goes on inside her four wood-pannelled walls – nothing and no-one leaves without a shine.
It’s not long before we meet the regulars. Diana Vickers fizzes with youthful energy as soon to be married Shelby. Her mum, M’Lynn (Laura Main from Call the Midwife) is busy keeping everyone happy; widow, Clairee (Caroline Hacker) is putting a brave face on filling her day; eccentric Ousier (Harriet Thorpe) is raging at the world, while Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele) arrives as new girl in town whose secrets the rest can’t wait for her to spill.
The fast-paced dialogue bounces along like a sitcom, and at times the constant one-liners make it hard to appreciate the roundness of the characters. Here tragedy and comedy are close bedfellows, as the women bond in laughter to help cope with the heartaches of life.
In this sense, these stories are universal and timeless. Here in the UK, we might not shoot birds out of the trees ahead of a wedding and eat armadillo cake, but we can understand the healing power of a heart-to-heart with friends and Steel Magnolias reminds us to appreciate just that.
Steel Magnolias is at The Lowry, Salford from 21 to 25 February 2023.