Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 21st March 2023
Best known for the stellar film version starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field et al, Robert Harling’s story started out as this stage play thirty years ago. Set in a Louisiana hair salon between 1983 and 1985, it’s a golden opportunity for half a dozen actors of the female persuasion to strut their stuff, as the characters prepare for big moments in their lives. The salon acts as a meeting place, somewhere to confide, to share, to have a right old laugh, with all the important action occurring off-stage.
As hairstylist Truvy, a big-haired Lucy Speed channels Dolly Parton and gets to deliver most of the script’s best zingers. She draws us in immediately with her irresistible down-home charm. New recruit Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele) sweetly evades questions about her home-life, engendering a little mystery (which is overshadowed by her later conversion to Christian Evangelism).
Among the customers are Diana Vickers as bride-to-be with health issues, Shelby; Laura Main as mother-of-the-bride M’Lynn; Caroline Harker as rich woman Clairee; and, in this performance, Claire Carpenter as the forthright Ouiser. It’s a fine ensemble. Harker seems to warm into her role as the evening goes on and can really deliver a punchline, but it’s Main who delivers the show’s most powerfully emotional moment in an outpouring of the frustration that comes along with grief. Across the board, the accents are pretty good, pretty authentic. Occasionally, lines are indistinct, slurred a little too quickly, but the one-liners and acerbic observations mostly come across with expert timing.
Our role as audience is to eavesdrop on the comings and goings, picking up exposition to fill the gaps in between the scenes, as we are drawn into these women’s world. Laura Hopkin’s set boxes the characters in the salon, framing the scene with light. This lends an air of intimacy to proceedings but unfortunately also serves as a distancing effect, keeping us out.
It’s an old-fashioned piece, showing its age, and I wonder if the universality of its message (women supporting each other in a man’s world) would translate away from the Deep South setting. Give them all Dudley accents, for example, and the drama would have the same impact. Bring it up-to-date to reinforce the need for sisterhood in today’s society, and the piece might turn its girl power into feminism.
It’s a cosy night at the theatre, a solid production that amuses and has moments of emotional truth, but it’s not really my cup of bourbon.
☆ ☆ ☆
Elizabeth Ayodele, Laura Main, Lucy Speed and Diana Vickers (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)