I have now seen Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling’s witty and sad play set in a Louisiana hairdressers, three times and each time have come away with one overriding thought. You don’t half feel sorry for the men. The odd good word is said in their defence but you could fit most of them on the back of a Thomas Jefferson commemorative stamp. Collectively the unseen male of the species, dead or alive, of Harling’s play are lazy, aggressive, stupid or self centred. Usually all four. Men, of course, are not like that. In rugby clubs and on football coaches, up and down the country, they spend most of their time and energies revering the beauty and wisdom of ladies in delicate and literate tones. No, I don’t believe it either.
Probably explains why I have no difficulty in believing that when women get together in the tonsorial equivalent of the confessional they can expand, in pithy and witty terms, on the husbands and sons and lovers in their life. Apart from anything else, in Steel Magnolias it creates a rich seam of comic lines against the backdrop of a sad and tragic central story. Over four scenes, over two years, customer Shelby marries, gets pregnant, has baby, gets ill, and dies. Solomon Grundy in dramatic, feminine, relief. On Richard Clark’s sparse but realistic set, converting a carport to a hairdressing salon, we follow a journey of two complex hairdressers, two cranky customers, and a mother and daughter united in the latter’s fateful journey. I would have liked a prominent and striking salon door to both welcome the customers and facilitate stronger entrances from the actors and I would have liked, personal nitpick, a telephone that rang realistically. Here we had a play in Eaton Bray and a phone ring from Whipsnade. Oh all right, I exaggerate, but you get my meaning. Good theatre should draw you in, generally this well acted play did, but little things can detract from that desired illusion of reality. I said I was nitpicking.
Having said all that I have few quibbles with the acting skills on show. Front Row Theatre Group may be a small village company but, on this showing, they have some serious actresses. Mandy Lindsay was a totally believable and wise cracking Truvy. ‘There ain’t such a thing as natural beauty’ was her mantra and she attacked her ladies and her lines with consummate aplomb. This lady only wrong footed once, and sinfully drew attention to it, but overall her performance was an absolute joy. Susan Young matched her all the way as Annelle, flowering from hesitant assistant to confident companion on her journey of damascene conversion. Never dropping her guard, this was a sensitive portrayal throughout. Clairee (Donna Hughes) and Ouiser (Barbara Morton) were chips off the same acerbic block and both played their characters to the full comic hilt. I shall never look at chaps into track lighting and called Steve in the same way again. Oh, read the script. Barbara Morton, beautifully and quirkily costumed, scored heavily in every scene she was in and both she and Miss Hughes hit the southern drawl lines with expertise and clarity. I am still laughing at tinselled ‘Keep off the Grass’ signs as Christmas decoration.
Just in case this is beginning to sound like a homely village piece I have to warn you that this blog ain’t like that. I don’t do rubber stamping of worthy theatrical causes. Ask Wheathampstead Players and Dunstable Rep if you don’t believe me. You have to earn your stars from me. And truth to tell I had problems with both the mother and the daughter. Bernadette Freed as M’Lynn initially lacked the ease of the others mentioned, in character development and line delivery, but magnificently came up trumps in her last scene. Her quiet retelling of her daughter’s final moments, a rejection of the kidney she had donated, followed by her anger and despair at the unfairness of life, was a compelling piece of acting. A difficult scene to play, and this was the best interpretation I have seen of it. More variety in her first half delivery and she would have been up there with the best of them on stage. She probably wasn’t helped by Sonia Dean’s portrayal of the ill fated daughter Shelby. This wasn’t a bad performance, in parts it was quite touching, but her diction was low key and her delivery and characterisation was hampered by the southern drawl accent. You felt for her passing but not as much as you should.
I hope that does not sound cruel. I hope not because overall I greatly admired this feminine ensemble. Eaton Bray are blessed to have such a good acting company in their small village. Director Christopher Lavin had clearly worked his actors very hard and he had a pretty good cast more than capable of realising his expectations. I intend to view them again in November, I travel adventurously wide in the cause of blogging, when they are doing Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular. The men in that, this time on stage, are a bunch of shits as well. Roy Hall