REVIEW: Steel Magnolias

Transporting you back to the 1980s, the stage version of the bittersweet comedy Steel Magnolias opened for a short six day run in Milton Keynes on Monday to rapturous applause.

Featuring a cast of six well-known actresses, it is played out in a Louisiana beauty parlour and follows the original play by author Robert Harling and the 1989 film – ironically shown in Channel 5 last Saturday – which starred Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah and a very young Julia Roberts.

In this latest production, a similarly impressive and accomplished British line-up includes Denise Welch (Benidorm, Loose Women and Waterloo Road), Cherie Lunghi (The Manageress) and Kacey Ainsworth (Little Mo from EastEnders) along with the superb Cheryl Campbell (Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven) which made Steel Magnolias a winner in my book.

The play is in four acts and finally tells the moving story of the loss of the tragic diabetic Shelby (Sadie Pickering), daughter of M’Lynn (Isla Blair) following an operation in which the mother donates a kidney.

In fact the whole play mirrors Harling’s own life. He lost his own sister to kidney failure and he wrote Steel Magnolias to celebrate her life.

The group of six friends meet up in Truvy’s Hair and Beauty Parlour, a brightly lit salon – painted in candy-coloured pastel pinks, yellows and greens – which is in America’s southern state of Louisiana.

Parlour owner Truvy (played by Denise Welch) – whose motto is ‘There’s no such things as natural beauty’– takes on the slightly dippy Annelle (Kacey Ainsworth) as a hairstylist and the authentic set features bright salon chairs and vintage hairdryers under which M’Lynn is seated after Annelle actually washes and sets her hair on stage.

The first act intoduces the characters and sets the scene ahead of Shelby’s planned wedding to Jackson (who we never actually see), but we do learn that she has diabetes and she passes out while having her hair done by the colourful Truvy, adorned in a blonde bouffant wig.

There is then a longish break and the story continues several months later when Christmas decoration have been added. Several set tweaks are made to the tree directly outside the salon window – snow first, then blossoms for the later spring scene.

Scene three was clearly one for the males in the 20:1 ratio audience as the bubbly Truvy more than lives up to the Dolly Parton image with plenty of cleavage on show.

The shock announcement that Shelby is pregnant is met by mixed reactions. Her mother M’Lynn knows what could be instore while Annelle (who has now turned to religion), the fun-loving widow Clairee (Cherie Lunghi), the outrageous and overly-loud Ouiser (Cheryl Campbell) and Truvy are delighted. But the final moving act follow on after Shelby’s sad death while the five friends play out the final scene.

While ‘Southern States drawl’ accents are played out pretty well by the five most experienced actresses and are easily understood, Sadie Pickering’s Shelby was sometimes inaudible. However it didn’t really detract from the overall performance of what is an enjoyable, well acted sentimental production. Now will y’all come back now, y’hear!

Steel Magnolias runs until Saturday and for tickets call the box office on 08448 717652 or online at

Alan Wooding

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