Steel Magnolias

Solar Theatre presents 'Steel Magnolias' by Robert Harling, directed by Ben Barnes.

Solar Theatre presents 'Steel Magnolias' by Robert Harling, directed by Ben Barnes.

Hollywood star Mischa Barton plays it low-key in the central role of Shelby Eatenton in director Ben Barnes' production of Steel Magnolias for Solar Theatre. Robert Harling's play, which inspired a hit film starring Julia Roberts in the 1980s, is a crowd-pleaser, incorporating the emotional tugs of humour, pathos, and tragic loss in order to tell the story of female friendship and the bonds of love and loyalty between mother and daughter.

The casting of Barton is certainly something of a coup for the production, and her presence, along with that of actor Anne Charleston – who for many years played the role of Madge Bishop in the Australian soap Neighbours – will almost certainly prove a draw for audiences. Nevertheless, under Barnes' precise and careful direction, Barton proves a refined presence on the stage: she moves easily and gracefully, immerses fully in the role, and offers no sense of an international cinematic celebrity throwing her weight around.

In fact – and almost despite the sentimentality of the material – Barnes creates a coherent and tightly-structured production, eliciting measured and controlled performances from each member of his cast, even at the end, when the work threatens to become overwrought. Barton and Charleston are the only international members of the cast – the rest are familiar faces from the Irish stage, but the director makes no distinction between native performers such as Barbara Brennan, who plays Shelby's tough-loving socialite mother M'Lynn, Karen Ardiff, playing local beauty salon-owner Truvy and Natalie Radmall-Quirke, who takes on the role of innocent outsider Annelle. The result, which also includes Gillian Hanna as Miss Clairee, is a piece of work that weaves and interweaves relationships to the extent that one genuinely believes in their authenticity.

And if this is what an audience member can take from this production of Steel Magnolias, perhaps it is enough. After all, this is not intended as challenging theatre; it is, rather, entertainment. Done well, as it is here, incorporating strong set design by Helen Goddard, it remains entertainment, with production company Solar Theatre happily billing it the best theatrical “girls' night-out” in a long time. But it is no more, or no less, bland than was the 1989 film, and no more, or no less bland than any such pieces of work that blithely reinforce the fundamental decency of human nature without necessarily questioning it.

Although there are some standoffs between Shelby and her mother, and although the character of Ouiser (Charleston), is eccentric and grumpy – with some admittedly sparky one-liners: “I'm not crazy, I've just been in a bad mood for forty years” – this is, in essence, a 'loveable' piece of work, about flawed but loveable people, who will always stick together, and always come good in the end.
Audiences may be encouraged to will for Shelby's courageous, if foolhardy decision to become pregnant, and in doing so, to choose hope over fear; a little later they may weep at her tragedy, but they are unlikely to remember her two hours later over a glass of wine.

Of course, escapism and interludes have their place in culture, particularly within a recession-wearied society, and audiences have through eternity gone to theatre to look at and laugh with other versions of themselves. Steel Magnolias is no more than the sum of its parts, easy, heartwarming, female-centred and cosy to the touch. It does what it sets out to do.

Rachel Andrews is an arts journalist and critic, based in Cork.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling

11 Sept - 19 Oct, 2012

Produced by Solar Theatre
In Cork Opera House (on tour)

Directed by Ben Barnes

Set Design: Helen Goddard

With: Karen Ardiff, Mischa Barton, Barbara Brennan, Anne Charleston, Gillian Hanna, Natalie Radmall-Quirke