Performed 24th to 26th March 2011
Steel Magnolias - March 2011
Salon scene: Starring in Riding Mill Drama Club's Steel Magnolias (from left) Eileen Davidson, Caroline Buckley, Frances Holmes, Rebecca Robson, Moyra Gardner and Anne Lawrence.
All-female cast steel themselves for show
By ROSALIND SAUL
THE spirit of America's Deep South helped brighten a gloomy night in Tynedale last week.
Riding Mill Drama Club’s latest production shattered the chill of a March evening with a heart-warming tale of Louisiana friendship, as humour and heartbreak blossomed into life on stage in Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias.
Based in the fictional Louisiana parish of Chinquapin in the 1980s, the story followed the lives of six women and the bond of friendship they shared through good times and bad.
Immortalised by the classic 1989 film of the same name, the shoes of such stars as Shirley McLaine, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis and Daryl Hannah, were always going to be tough to fill.
But the cast of the Riding Mill production remained unperturbed, and succeeded in capturing the spirit of Harling’s tale from beginning to end – or as they would say in Louisiana “from soup to nuts”.
Harling based the play on his own experiences following the death of his sister – a diabetic who died at a young age – and the close-knit friends who supported his family.
With six strong all-female roles carrying the storyline the cast did each character justice.
Along with some effective costumes and hairstyles, they transported their audience to 1980’s Louisiana.
Leading the way was Eileen Davidson as salon owner Truvy who was impressively convincing as a small-town American beautician.
Her character was to prove friend, confidante, and mother hen to the other five women, her presence in their lives the glue that held the group together.
Dressed to the nines like an 80s cowgirl, her performance was confident and realistic.
She worked really well with Rebecca Robson who played the timid newcomer, Annelle.
Annelle finds herself thrown into the women’s lives as Truvy’s new beautician, and, along with the audience, gets swept up in their various stories.
By far the quietest character, she was at risk of fading into the background, but Rebecca's quirky performance saved her – that, and her interesting line in 1980s style jumpers.
However, when it came to fashion, Caroline Buckley as the young Shelby definitely came off worst, sporting, among other things, a pastel-patterned jumpsuit.
But this didn't detract one iota from her fine performance, her character – that of a young diabetic – based on Harling’s sister and pivotal to the plot.
In essence Steel Magnolias follows her story – from her wedding, through to the birth of her son, a pregnancy which ultimately causes her kidneys to fail, and finally to her funeral.
And Caroline really did justice to the role of Shelby, defying her mother and doctors to have her baby, demonstrating a stubborn almost selfish desire to lead as normal a life as possible, and thus making her character even more likeable.
Her performance was made even stronger by her on stage connection with Frances Holmes, as her mother M’Lynn.
Frances really captured the love between the pair and the burden of a mother coping with her daughter’s ultimately fatal illness.
In the final scene before she leaves for Shelby’s funeral, Frances's grief appeared so genuine it was difficult to watch.
Supporting the main characters were wealthy, soccer-loving widow Clairee (Moyra Gardner) and the grouchy, but funny, twice-married widow Ouiser (Anne Lawrence).
Their characters, although different, blended well on the stage, with Anne Lawrence particularly impressive, imbuing her role with a snappy, humorous bitterness.
All six women demonstrated an on-stage chemistry that helped drive the action forward so that the storyline never felt forced.
And as their stories waxed and waned, so to did the audience's reaction, soaring from laughter to silence.
It would be so easy to dismiss Steel Magnolias as chick-lit because of its all-female cast and beauty salon setting, but such was the nature of the play the humour and strength of the six women couldn't but fail to have universal appeal.
Now, the only question remains is, how will the club top such a fine production for its autumn show?