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Bitter-sweet comedy-drama Steel Magnolias is set in a hair & beauty parlour in a fictional small town in the American South in the early 1980s. Telling the story of six women who meet regularly for beauty treatments, gossip mercilessly about the goings-on in their town, and companionably complain about their disappointing menfolk, the play presents a poignant study of female friendship and solidarity as the characters navigate life’s trials and tribulations.

Written by Robert Harling - following the death of his sister from complications associated with diabetes - and premiering off-Broadway in 1987,  Steel Magnolias is best known from its 1989 film version starring - among other A-listers of the era - Julia Roberts, Sally Field and Dolly Parton.

The play opens with Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele) being taken on by Truvy (Lucy Speed) at her hair & beauty parlour. Their regulars include Clairee (Caroline Harker), Ouisa (Claire Carpenter, stepping in for Harriet Thorpe), Shelby (Diana Vickers) and her mother M’Lynn (Laura Main), who are discussing Shelby’s forthcoming wedding. Although the southern drawl is a little hard on the ear and not always fully maintained on stage, it doesn’t detract from the intimacy of the performance.

Bride-to-be Shelby is type-1 diabetic and, against medical advice, determined to become a mother. Her own mother fully understands the dangers were Shelby to become pregnant and tries to dissuade her daughter from following her heart’s desire. The subject is a cause of great conflict between them.

The play covers a two-year period, with all the action taking place against an LED-framed beauty parlour set. The ’80s-inspired costumes and wigs are fabulous, the dialogue sharp, witty and at times very funny indeed. Even when tragedy strikes, humour helps keep spirits high, and there’s a genuine sense of warmth and tenderness between the characters. The small but powerful ensemble is impressive throughout, with convincing performances from all.

This is an engaging and uplifting play that will certainly make you laugh and possibly cause you to wipe away a tear or two. If you are old enough to have seen the movie when it first came out, the show will absolutely appeal to you. But there’s also plenty to enjoy for younger audience members experiencing Steel Magnolias for the very first time. It is, after all, a story about friendship and family relationships - and those are themes that remain as relevant today as ever they were. 

Four stars

Reviewed by Sue Hull at The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 21 March

Steel Magnolias runs at The Alexandra in Birmingham until Saturday (25 March).