Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
The 1980s were the heyday of female-centred comedy-drama in Hollywood. Offering a palatable triumph of female solidarity in the face of tragedy, Robert Harling’s stage play Steel Magnolias became one of the most famous vehicles for this cinematic trend.
Director Herbert Ross knew Harling’s tight formula needed little manipulation to be successful on screen, and one of the chief pleasures of watching Ben Barnes’s production of the play is how reassuringly familiar it is from its celluloid incarnation.
The play is set in the fictional small town of Chinquapin, Louisiana, in a beauty parlour owned by the vivacious Truvy (Karen Ardiff), who gathers an exclusive group of locals together for Saturday morning salon sessions to trade gossip and recipes.
Harling’s characters offer a wide range of experience with which to empathise. There is the former mayor’s widow, Miss Clairee (Gillian Hanna), who has plenty of money but no purpose; empty-nester Truvy; world-weary Ouiser (Anne Charleston); and naive new-girl Annelle (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), whose con-artist husband has left her destitute. Finally, there is the formidable M’Lynn (Barbara Brennan) and her diabetic daughter Shelby (Mischa Barton), whose ailing health provides the centre of the plot, as the comedy unravels into melodrama.
The cast acquit themselves well to the feel-good camaraderie, although their musical southern accents slide up and down the register. Husbands, sons and brothers hover in the wings, shooting guns and causing trouble, but Steel Magnolias is a firmly female sanctuary, and Helen Goddard’s frothy set, a confection of pink and yellow plastic, reinforces the fact that this production is one for the ladies.
At Cork Opera House until Friday, then tours