83-Steel-Magnolias-Ariel-Harrison-Maggie-Robson-Jo-Wickham-and-Samantha-Shellie-Credit-LHPhotoshots.jpgRobert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias based on real-life family experiences. Following the death of his sister due to diabetes, related complications after delivering his nephew and a failed liver transplant from a family member, a writer friend advised Harling to write his experiences into a short story for his young nephew to better understand the death of his mother. This short story was quickly adapted in ten days into Steel Magnolias which played Off-Broadway for 1,126 performances before being adapted again into the much-loved 1989 film starring Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Darryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine and Dolly Parton. Wanting to show audiences a true portrayal of how his family endured, Harling felt it important to include how the characters used humour to deal with the underlying seriousness of their situation. This humour in time of need translates into love in Harling’s play which still makes Steel Magnolias an audience favourite. As without sadness, how would we know happiness?

If you haven’t seen the classic 1989 film, the 2012 made for television Queen Latifa led version or the play; Steel Magnolias is the bittersweet story of six northwestern Louisiana women, living in small town USA. The women gather at Truvy’s Beauty Salon to share stories about their husbands, gossip, recipes and beauty tips on four days across three years of their lives. When tragedy strikes, they lean on each other offering support showing true friendship and love.

The first Off-West End venue to open with a house agreement with Equity, The Hope Theatre ensures a legal wage for all actors, stage managers and box office staff working at the theatre. Directed by Matthew Parker, Steel Magnolias features Jo Wickham as ‘Truvy’, Ariel Harrison as ‘Annelle’, Lin Sagovsky as ‘Caliree’, Samantha Shellie as ‘Shelby’ and Stephanie Beattie as ‘M’Lynn’. Parker’s Hope Theatre production of Lovesong of the Electric Bear received multiple awards and went on to transfer to the West End in 2015 so I was expecting big things from Steel Magnolias and I wasn’t let down.

Stephanie Beattie’s ‘M’Lynn’ was extraordinary. A loving mother and authority figure, her performance was effecting and believable. Ariel Harrison as new-comer ‘Annelle’ was well received and Harrison performed ‘Annelle’s’ growth with the perfect amount of naivety and gusto. Maggie Robson as the sassy, cantankerous and loving ‘Ouiser’ was so much fun and her performance touching and strong. Lin Sagovsky’s portrayal of ‘Clairee’ epitomised a refined southern women, making ‘Annelle’s awkward curtsying when they first meet cringe-worthy and hilarious. As ‘Shelby’ Samantha Shellie achieves an effecting performance. The audience falls in love with ‘Shelby’ early, routing for her throughout the play and when tragedy strikes; we all felt the loss. As ‘Truvy’ Jo Wickham has a difficult task as the characters all gather at her beauty salon throughout the play and ‘Truvy’ gives them an escape to share their stories. In a standout performance, Wickham shines and her performance was well-paced, strong and very touching. Each actor was perfectly cast and Matthew Parker’s direction gave life to the characters allowing them to continuously grow and play out their lives in the intimate Hope Theatre.

Rachel Ryan’s set and costume design was extremely effective. The small intimate space of The Hope Theatre was transformed into Truvy’s Beauty Salon with bright floral wallpaper, running water, working electrical sockets and enough 80’s nostalgia that was instantly recognisable. As the characters grew and time passed, the set also evolved subtly as a hot plate was switched out for a new coffee maker as technology evolved. A very smart and functional set design that suited the The Hope Theatre well and never felt cramped or imposing on the audience. So often I see plays or musicals set in the 70s, 80s or even 90s where the costume designer heads to the charity shop and purchases everything, throwing together tired, worn out ill fitted costumes that just look sad. Ryan’s wardrobe was the complete opposite with well researched and character based costumes. With a mix of nostalgia inspired new pieces and costumes that seemed to jump straight from tv show Dynasty all costumes were colourful, bright, fresh and looked new as if the characters has bought them the week before from their favourite local department store. Rachel Ryan’s set and costume were highly effective and transported the audience from London all the way to Louisiana, USA in the 1980’s for Steel Magnolias at The Hope Theatre.

A heart-warming portrayal of strength, Steel Magnolias plot deals prominently with Type 1 diabetes and this production at The Hope Theatre has joined forces with Diabetes UK to raise awareness of the condition and the work of the charity. Roz Rosenblatt, Diabetes UK Head for London, said: “Steel Magnolias is a wonderful play and we welcome anything that raises the profile of diabetes. Nearly 12 million people are at increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Left untreated or poorly managed, diabetes can cause devastating complications such as amputation, blindness, kidney failure and stroke.”
The Hope Theatre’s Steel Magnolias was heart-warming, funny, poignant and exuded love and friendship. Director Matthew Parker effectively handled Harling’s original text to bring the characters to life. The audience could identify with each and I really believed all the characters were friends as we laughed and cried along with them onstage. The suggestion of the title that the characters are as fragile as magnolias but as strong as steel is universal and I found myself examining the amount of love I gave and received in my own life. Steel Magnolias at The Hope Theatre is a strongly performed powerful play that deserves to be seen.

Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: LHPhotoshots

STEEL MAGNOLIAS is playing at the HOPE Theatre until 3 September 2016