The Greville Theatre Club



Steel Magnolias

by Robert Harling


May 2015

Directed by
Jonathan Scripps



Michael Gray's Arts Blog

STEEL MAGNOLIAS

Greville Theatre Club at the Barn Theatre Little Easton
15.05.2015



Robert Harling's bitter-sweet comedy is set in a cosy Chinquapin beauty parlour – all the action, the tragedy and the farce, happens off-stage. The ladies of the neighbourhood use Truvy's as refuge and group therapy, while outside spring turns to winter.

Jonathan Scripps' feel-good production is set in a beautifully realised salon - “luxurious without being sleazy”: lilac paintwork, hood dryers and women's magazines.

Shelby – a spot-on characterization from Sonia Lindsey-Scripps, southern drawl and all – is being titivated for her pink-themed Princess Grace wedding. Her mother [Pam Hemming] fusses, huffs and interferes. Nervous newbie Annelle [warmly characterized by Saira Plane] clearly has a past to hide. Larger than life characters breeze in and out – Ouiser, in a bad mood for forty years, is grumpily played by Lynda Shelverton. Clairee, elegant, big shoulders, big hair, is wonderfully done by Madeline Harmer. Like Marcia Baldry-Bryan's feisty Truvy, she nails the sharp Southern wit and the crisp one-liners – I think it's to do with the eyes … Truvy has some of the best quips, including my favourite, “the nicest thing I can say about her is all her tattoos are spelled correctly”.

On opening night, there was some hesitancy and a few fluffed lines, but, though we weren't always convinced that we were in Louisiana, there was a palpable sense of community and camaraderie amongst these six ladies, well served by excellent ensemble playing. So that when the tear-jerker ending comes, with M'Lynn reliving her “most precious moment” at her daughter's bedside, the wave of shared sympathy embraces the audience, too. As Truvy says, “laughter through tears – my favourite emotion”.

The traditional Greville supper featured apple pie and a superb salmon salad – alas, no dago pie or Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa cake.

 



Addicted to Theatre with Mary Redman

Steel Magnolias, Greville Theatre Club, The Barn Theatre, Little Easton near Great Dunmow


Thanks to the wonders of modern technology I have "walked” around Chinquapin, Louisiana near Pasadena. Seen the typical houses with plenty of ground or "yards" surrounding them where the youngest heroine of the play held her wedding reception and where Truvy had her beauty salon adapted from her garage. 

Robert Harling's play based upon his sister's life first came to our attention when it appeared in a 1989 smash hit London run directed by Julia McKenzie. Starring: as Shelby
- Joely Richardson, a young member of the Redgrave acting dynasty; Rosemary Harris as M'Lynn; Jean Boht as Ouiser; Janine Duvitski as Annelle; Stephanie Cole as Clairee; Maggie Steed as Truvy. A very powerful cast in very emotionally moving roles. When we saw it then we were crying as the comedy drama unfolded.  Amazed over the way in which Harling had created from people he knew in real life, such amazing roles for actresses of all ages as heroines. And that a totally female cast and director had taken the script and run with it. Another source of amazement was that sharp observer Harling had given voices to women with ordinary everyday lives. So many of our responses consisted of an 'oh yes' of recognition. The play was also a revelation in hearing these ordinary women being entirely honest with each other. The lines were full of quirkiness, snappy replies and jokes.

Steel Magnolias is still as popular today even though some of it has dated as society has changed. Greville Theatre Club's production directed by Jonathan Scripps fielded yet another good cast, each of them having power in her own fashion.

Just like any classical Greek or French tragedy, the action is confined to a single location: the beauty salon where Truvy rules her world, working her magic on the women of Chinquapin.  Created and dressed by a stage management team including Rodney Foster, Diana Bradley and Jan Ford, the set was a marvel of a small salon. The fashions, props and wig hairstyles of the 90s were created by Judy Lee and Patsy Page while Robert Pickford was in charge of lighting and Steve Bradley ruled the sound world even if the shotgun shots sounded more like starting pistols.

Saira Plane played the hesitant new apprentice with a past Annelle, causing hilarity among the salon owner and customers with her stupid mistakes including using left over burger water to make coffee. Owner Truvy played with sharp-edged wit by Marcia Baldry-Bryan was mistress of all she surveyed, but backed it up with sympathy and an enormous heart of gold. Madeline Harmer had a whale of a time as cuppa, cuppa, cuppa cake magician Clairee, a super elegant fashion plate from head-to-toe, with a sharp tongue when necessary.  Sonia Lindsey-Scripps was a perfect Shelby, giving a very confident performance full of stage presence. Living her necessarily circumscribed Diabetic Type 1 life by  "I'd rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing at all." Incidentally her idea of the perfect wedding to end all weddings was to have everything contrary to her mother's wishes. Totally pink with babies' breath flowers in her hair; nine bridesmaids; colours Blush and Bashful or "pink and pink" including the carpet; fifty pounds of marinated crab claws and two wedding cakes - the groom's one well away from the bride's cake. Pam Hemming as her mother M'Lynn was all dignified resignation but brimming with mother love. When tragedy really struck after a mother-to-daughter kidney transplant failed it was clear to see that for all her gravitas this was a devastated woman who could not save her own child from death. As Ouiser the town's queen of sour grapes, Lynda Shelverton also showed that there was definitely something called a heart beating beneath that hard exterior.

There were plenty of chuckles from the first night audience but more security on words would probably have helped increase the production's pace and pointing of lines. Equally the Deep South accent is highly tricky to catch reliably and certainly not a walk in the park. And would the programme team please note that a colour scheme of red and black with tiny printing in colours absorbed by the background is almost impossible to read for many of us? Yet this was an entertaining evening that was also moving to experience.

Mary Redman
May 24 2015