‘Steel Magnolias’ celebrates bonds of friendship

The female cast of Steel Magnolias in the salon''Berwick Operatic Society stage Steel Magnolias at The Maltings
The female cast of Steel Magnolias in the salon''Berwick Operatic Society stage Steel Magnolias at The Maltings

Laughter, tears, problems and family joys and tragedies shared - the beauty salon on The Maltings stage last week had it all.

Six ladies of the Berwick Operatic Society rose to the challenge of the dialogue-driven stage play ‘Steel Magnolias’ written by Robert Darling, and with their southern drawls in demand throughout they did not disappoint.

The 1980’s film of ‘Steel Magnolias’ has all the credentials of a typical chick film - humour, weepy moments and strong female characters - but the story has far more depth than that. Based in small town America in the deep south, it’s a microcosm of life and its personal triumphs and tragedies that happen almost anywhere in the western world, which is why it is as relevant in Berwick as Louisiana.

How many audience members watching the goings-on in Truvy’s beauty salon could relate to what they were seeing and hearing? The hairdressers/beauty salon is so often a place where the most interesting bits of information/gossip are discussed and Truvy’s was no exception.

Larger than life salon owner Truvy Jones has a heart of gold and Louise Wood was obviously relishing the role. Louise admits that of all the characters “Truvy is closest to my personality” which perhaps explains why she absolutely shone in the role. Not once did the southern drawl slip and quite simply Louise was Truvy.

With a nose for a story that any journalist would be jealous of, Truvy agreed to take on the socially awkward Annelle, and along with her clients made it her mission to discover Annelle’s story, after which they all joined forces to ensure her future was what they wanted for ‘one of their own’. Tilly’s portrayal of Annelle was as believable as Daryl Hannah in the film version and she soon won over both the ladies and the audience.

Shelby’s life was a permanent struggle - coping with diabetes, an overbearing mother with the best of intentions and a father who was eccentric to say the least. In her role as Shelby, Laura Cattrall and Denise Clarke as her mother M’Lynn created a bond that was both difficult and strong at the same time, as many mother/daughter relationships are and they couldn’t be faulted.

Clairee’s neverending need to be in the top echelons of Louisiana society was completely at odds with Ouise’s anti-social, permanently angry attitude to life. Their unorthdox but at times tender relationship was played beautifully by Susan Potts and Maureen Gillie. I have to admit to having some misgiving about the role of Ouise and the chances of anyone being able to match Shirley McLain’s portrayal in the film but Maureen Gillie got it spot on, not so over-the-top that it was awkward but just mad enough to be entertaining.

As the beauty salon was the scene for the entire play, director Robert Wilkinson made use of a film backdrop to indicate the passage of time, moving from the prelude to Shelby’s wedding, to the birth of her son, and her premature death from complications brought on by her diabetes.

However, the final film sequence depicting Shelby’s son as he grew from a boy into a man supported by his grandmother and the ladies of the salon was a step too far. It was shot with the best of intentions but every clue was there to show it was shot in north Northumberland, from the landscape to the building stone and after the cast members had made such a sterling effort to convince us that the play was set in the deep south of America it short-changed their efforts - the poignancy of the ladies coming to terms with Shelby’s death was sufficient for us to know that they would have continued to support her family for years to come, we didn’t need to be further convinced of that.