The New Theatre is no stranger to spectacle. It never fails to pull out all the stops: in the last few months alone, it’s welcomed huge touring productions of Bat Out of Hell, Mamma Mia and Rocky Horror – but equally impressive are the hidden gems behind the bells and whistles: the chuckle-worthy comedies, the cosy character studies, and shows that excel with only a small cast and a smart script.
Steel Magnolias is one such show. Based on Robert Harling’s original stage play, it was adapted into a star-studded 1989 movie starring Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, and Sally Field. This new touring production is directed by Anthony Banks and follows the lives of six women in a small Southern town in the 1980s. Idealistic Shelby (Little Voice’s Diana Vickers) is getting married, which is the talk of a local beauty salon run by the ultra-glam Truvy (Lucy Speed). Shelby’s plans to have a baby, even with Type 1 diabetes, alarms her doting mother M’Lynn (Laura Main, Call the Midwife). Meanwhile, new-in-town Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele) conceals a troubled past while frenemies Ouiser (Claire Carpenter, standing in for Harriet Thorpe) and Clairee (Caroline Harker) bicker like Statler and Waldorf.
The cast share a charming chemistry, capturing the catty camaraderie of lasting friendship; it’s a joy to spend two hours in their company. Vickers and Speed in particular disappear into their roles: Speed’s Dolly-isms are uncanny, creating a character whose heart is as big as her hair (kudos to Richard Mawbey’s wig work), while X Factor semi-finalist Vickers – last seen at the New in Dial M for Murder – gets to flex her comedic chops as the stubborn-as-hell Southern belle. Main, meanwhile, gives a masterclass performance of which Sally Field herself would be proud. Harker, Carpenter and Ayodele deliver one-liners for the ages while BSL Interpreter Julie Doyle almost runs off with the whole show. It’s yet another example of how inclusive theatre can enhance the viewing experience for everyone.
When Steel Magnolias premiered on Broadway in 1987, it was unusual for shows to have an all-female cast – in 2023, outside of SIX the Musical, they are still few and far between. As one of the characters says, “men are supposed to be steel” – but it’s the women who have real mettle. As Truvy says, “The higher the hair, the closer to God!” – and her salon does become a sanctuary: a confessional, an altar, and a site of communion and community. Steel Magnolias tells us that there’s no such thing as natural beauty, that a dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste, and that the time you put in to cultivating both good hair and good friends is always well-spent.
Steel Magnolias is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff through Saturday 22 April. It’s the last stop on their acclaimed UK and Ireland tour, so make sure to make an appointment at Truvy’s salon! More information and how to book tickets here.