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Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre - An Inspector Calls (with James Pellow)

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Friday, 8 July 2011

Steel Magnolias - Griffin Players (September 2008)

My last review for The Luton News before concentrating on the horses. No bricks.

Steel Magnolias
Griffin Players
Luton Library Theatre

12th September 2008

It is a little known fact, or if it isn’t it ought to be, that I spend a fair bit of my time in ladies hairdressers. It doesn’t make me an expert in the ways of feminine inner sanctums but it does mean that Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias does not take place in completely undiscovered territory. Harling’s characters wisecrack their way through eighteen months of a tearful journey alien to my refined Harpenden lot but, in other respects, the soul bearing haircuts have many similarities.

On Gary Nash’s realistic and splendid set, cleverly creating wide angled spaces on a stage not renowned for depth, the staff and customers intertwine emotional baggage and off stage action. The life outside this salon is rich with gun toting husbands, unsociable dogs, and dead or distant partners, and the hardest trick for the company is to engage you in those offstage lives and simultaneously dazzle with onstage rapport. They didn’t totally succeed, not least because Mr Nash’s directorial skills fell a little short of his excellent designing talent, but the evening was never less than enjoyable and entertaining.

Lorna Trapp was the sharp and clear Truvy, a proprietor convinced that there was no such thing as natural beauty, and Sophie Singleton-Sells a beautifully crafted assistant. Miss Sells’ Annelle made the greater journey of development, and was therefore the more enriching, but both actresses skilfully underpinned the microcosmic life in this Louisiana salon. Denise Bryson (aggressive and moneyed dog lover) and Elizabeth Rhodes (widowed cake maker) provided the comic relief but, two sides of a similar coin, only Miss Bryson truly grabbed the part by the throat. Sharp on cues and timing, this actress injected pace which the otherwise likeable Clairee of Miss Rhodes could not match.

But the heart and essence of Steel Magnolias is the relationship of the ultimately doomed Shelby (Kate Johnson) and her frustrated and unstable mother (Nuala Prior). All the others are merely amusing and interesting satellites in their slowly developing tragic journey. Both the portrayals were fine, Kate Johnson a particularly perky daughter besotted by pink, but their central scene of medical revelations was both muted and unfocussed. I liked the ebb and flow of the lives of these Louisiana ladies; I just wanted a change of dramatic gear and tone. But if the well flagged dying failed to induce the promised tears even this old heart was impressed by skilfully controlled final scene speeches from a cast in the shadow of Shelby’s death.

The Griffin Players gave us that splendid set, underpinned by realistic sound effects from Graham Elliott and effective lighting from Andrew Maxted and David Houghton, and Truvy’s hairdressing salon was a small world it was a pleasure to inhabit. If Sophie Singleton-Sells' journey from dowdy assistant to frizzy haired bible thumper took much of the acting honours all played their part, even down to convincing southern American accents. I reckon my Harpenden ladies, gun shots apart, would have quite liked it.

Roy Hall

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