05/08/2017 - 01/09/2017
Big hair, big laughs and big heart in Steel Magnolias
Step back in time for big laughs, big tears and big hair. Steel Magnolias, opening at The Court Theatre, is a heart-warming celebration of togetherness and female friendship.
Set in a hair salon in 1987 Louisiana, Steel Magnolias follows the bond between six women over three years. These Southern belles come together to gossip, laugh and ultimately support each other through all of life’s ups and downs.
Originating as a tribute to the playwright’s late sister, Susan, the play was written in just ten days. Inspired by family and friends, the deeply personal nature of the story and recognisable characters resonated with audiences. The original production team were surprised, however, when the wit and honesty in the crackling dialogue inspired laughter as much as tears.
Debuting off-Broadway in March of 1987, Steel Magnolias was a smash hit and ran for 1,126 performances. Further acclaim came in 1989 when the play was adapted into an award-winning film starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Dolly Parton and Shirley MacLaine.
The Court Theatre’s production boasts an impressive cast known and loved by audiences: Kathleen Burns, Lara Macgregor, Yvonne Martin, Lucy Porter, Sarah Kelly and Susannah Kenton. Director Gregory Cooper – the only man in the rehearsal room – describes it as “a stellar cast… an incredible opportunity to see six incredibly talented, diverse actors.”
Ross Gumbley, The Court’s Artistic Director, observes; “Sharing this play is a deeply satisfying experience. From an audience’s point of view, you are in the room with six wonderful characters telling an absorbing story full of laughter and tears. It’s what you want every play to be.”
Yvonne Martin appeared in the first production of Steel Magnolias at The Court in 1989. “We were on stage before the film came out,” she recalls. For the 2017 season, Martin was approached to either direct or perform, and opted to play “town curmudgeon” Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux. “I couldn’t resist the role,” says Martin, “and I love being part of this cast”.
Kathleen Burns was born the same year that Steel Magnolias was written. “The script is so, so good. The connections between the women is 100% as applicable today as it was then. The bond that women have is timeless by nature.” This is the second show Burns has been in with an all-female cast – the first being The Women, which was staged at The Court in 2013.
Burns appreciates the perspective Cooper brings as director. “He’s looking at what the audience wants to see and he’s absolutely committed to making it as real as possible – he spent hours moving set and props around to make the best playground for us to play in. I think he’s learning a lot about women, too,” she laughs.
The creative team discussed updating the play to the modern day, but felt the original 1987 setting was more appropriate. This created opportunities for all the creative departments to go retro. All costumes on stage are authentic 80s clothes. “I don’t think there’s an op-shop in Christchurch we haven’t been to,” says Costume Manager Sarah Douglas.
Sarah Greenwood-Buchanan has been employed as Steel Magnolias’ wig and hair stylist to recreate the ‘dos of the day. The styles will be “big, teased, fun and fabulous,” she says. Greenwood-Buchanan started hairdressing in 1983 and agrees that hairdressers are “almost fully qualified psychologists… you get to know your clients inside and out”.
Cooper tasked Greenwood-Buchanan to ensure the on-stage salon was full of “hustle and bustle”, with the action as realistic as possible. Greenwood-Buchanan trained the actresses playing the hairdressers (Sarah Kelly and Lucy Porter) in hairstyling techniques to make the onstage activity believable. “The audience should be focused on listening to the women talk about their lives, themselves and each other – the hair should just happen in the background. Hopefully the audience will go away, realise what unfolded before them, and think ‘oh my gosh, that was amazing’,” Greenwood-Buchanan says.
Cooper feels that at its core Steel Magnolias is “a play about friendship. It’s a place where these women can come together and be completely open and honest without fear of judgement. They can talk about anything, life’s sadness or madness, and be listened to. It feels that with all these new ways to communicate, maybe we’ve forgotten the art of listening.”
Steel Magnolias opens on 5 August – y’all are most welcome.
Tonkin & Taylor Main Stage at The Court Theatre
5 August – 1 September 2017
6.30pm: Forum 7 August – Discuss the play with cast and creative team after the show
2.00pm: Matinee Saturday 26th August
Under 25: $35-$43
Child (under 18): $25-$33
Senior 65yrs+: $47-$55
Group 6+: $47-$55
Bookings: phone 03 963 0870 or visit www.courttheatre.org.nz
Lara Macgregor: M’Lynn
Kathleen Burns: Shelby
Sarah Kelly: Truvy
Lucy Porter: Annelle
Yvonne Martin: Ouiser
Susannah Kenton: Clairee
Gregory Cooper: Director
Nigel Kerr: Set Designer
Pam Jones: Costume Designer
Giles Tanner: Lighting Designer
Sean Hawkins: Sound Designer / Operator
Sarah Greenwood-Buchanan: Wigs & Hair Master
Christy Lassen: Properties Manager
Jo Bunce: Stage Manager
Distinctive and engaging characters
Review by Lindsay Clark 06th Aug 2017
From what was originally intended as a therapeutic exercise to deal with the tragedy of his sister’s death, Harling’s short story built into a highly successful stage play, before gaining further popularity as a film. In the thirty years since its first staging, the world seems less interested in sentiment than shock, but the importance of friendship and the primal bond of motherhood is undiminished. Therein lies the affection for this play, set in the accustomed inner temple of female aspiration, the beauty parlour.
We are in Truvy’s salon in small town Louisiana, sharing the lives and chatter of half a dozen Southern women, which to contemporary ears borders on an inane preoccupation with appearances, recipes, babies and so forth until, under Cooper’s direction, the metaphor becomes clear. This is a place where the unpleasing can be remade into something beautiful and sustaining.
The circumstances of Truvy (Sarah Kelly), her assistant Annelle (Lucy Porter) and the four regulars, Ouisa (Yvonne Martin), Clairee (Susannah Kenton) and mother/ daughter pair M’Lynn and Shelby (detailed below), are the stuff of the play as the tragic retelling of Harling’s family events unfolds.
It is a very little world that we join for the duration of the play and I am left with the feeling that apart from hairspray and nail varnish in ravishing tones, this is more or less the way society for women has always operated here and very likely always will, since the critical component of their lives, enduring sisterhood, is indestructible.
The fuss is on for Shelby’s wedding as we are introduced to the group. Hair is top of the agenda, with all the paraphernalia of a working hairdressing establishment magically underscoring the gossip and banter. For its complicated stage business alone, the production is remarkable. A wig plot detailing the succession of ‘new looks’ across time, following Shelby’s story from wedding day to motherhood and beyond, is the artful contribution of designer Sarah Greenwood-Buchanan.
Throughout developments, we are kept aware of the world of men beyond the sanctum and we learn about them through the resigned but far from helpless observations of their women. The man who leaves, the man who lies on the couch, the man who lives for hunting … there they are. Richly studded with shrewd, often funny comments and wisecracks, the lens is narrowly focused but with rewarding intensity.
Another plus for the production is the sincerity and impact of the mother/ daughter pair at the heart of the story. Shelby, played with outstanding vivacity by Kathleen Burns, is constantly in opposition to M’Lynn’s more considered approach, a natural for her job as a counsellor at the local Guidance Centre. Lara Macgregor’s finely tuned performance lends substance to a plot line often concerned with superficial doings, although the whole cast finds its way to distinctive and engaging characters.
The creative team is a strong one. Nigel Kerr’s set takes us from a very plain exterior to an excessively decorated interior world in one smooth movement and is enhanced by Giles Tanner’s lighting and Sean Hawkins’ sound design. Telling costume from Pam Jones efficiently completes the picture.
A receptive audience applauds it all happily, a just acknowledgement for a play which still finds its way to our hearts and for the assertion that holding hands with buddies is still a very effective way of dealing with pain.
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