Sunday, 27 January 2019
REVIEW: Steel Magnolias - Stepping Stones Nursery, Bolton.
I have been fortunate enough to review two plays in Bolton this weekend: one amateur and one professional but both performed by theatre companies who are ‘homeless’ (without their original performance space). Phoenix Theatre Company are an amateur group who had performed their plays in a church hall, not far from this venue until it’s demolition in 2003 but now hire any venue where they can afford to perform their many plays. This year alone sees three different venues and I approached this one with trepidation as I had never seen theatre performed in a ‘Day Nursery’!
On entering the Nursery, past the play equipment and shelves of miniature wellington boots (very cute), I found myself in a large room which had been transformed into a theatre space. The box office, welcome drinks and set up of the auditorium gave me a hint that this was a well-loved group with many people taking the lead in creating a sense of professionalism in its work.
The stage was floor level and the backdrop created by frames, covered in black cloth. The set looked like a second hand furniture shop had thrown up on it as there was so much furniture for the size of space. However, it soon became apparent that there wasn’t a piece which wasn’t functional in the entire play. The feeling of working to a budget was prevalent in many ways so I still remained sceptical about what I was about to watch.
Steel Magnolias is set in a hairdressing salon, in Louisiana in the 1980s. It follows the story of six women, spanning three years. It is an romantic comedy but ultimately a tragic play as it tells the tale of their lives through their hairdresser chats or ‘banter’ as they might call it in Bolton! The play was originally performed in London and New York in the late 1980s and was adapted into a film with an all-star cast in 1989. I am a big fan of the movie and the stage play.
As soon as the actors playing hairdressers were underway, it became very apparent that we were in good hands; Truvy played by Laura Roberts and Annelle, played by Jade Atkinson had created top class accents and characterisation. One by one, the clientele of the salon arrived on the stage and I waited for there to be a weak link (especially in the Bolton-Louisiana accent transition) and it didn’t happen. The supporting roles of Clairee, played by Diane Pepper and Ouiser, played by Christine Morton, had fantastic comic timing and created a gentle release to the dramatic tension in the story. All six cast members were equally wonderful with complete believability in their roles.
But my favourites, had to be the mother and daughter duo, Shelby (Catherine Cropper) and M’Lynn (Joy Plowes) who were outstanding in their bickering relationship between overprotective mother and independent daughter. Their rapport with one another was incredibly realistic and they maintained a natural chemistry throughout the entire piece. Cropper’s acting in the role of Shelby was completely natural as the excitable bride to be. When she has a diabetic hypo, in act one, we see the reason for M’Lynn’s over-protection and the moment could easily have been overplayed but both actresses acted the part with such subtlety, it really was a wonderful moment to behold. Despite knowing this story so well (and without giving any spoilers), it was very clear that in the final act, M’Lynn’s acting left the audience stunned and glass-eyed with her wonderful interpretation of the role.
The entire play was clearly brilliantly directed by Louise Davenport as everything was so slick and professional. I particularly loved the choice of sight-lines looking offstage and into mirrors, meaning so much of the play was addressed to the audience; a simple but extremely effective feature. With a tiny budget, Davenport has created a masterpiece. . .and all in a Day Nursery with a tiny audience.
My only hope is that the amateur theatre awards adjudicators from B-A-T-S and NODA have seen this performance, as I truly believe what I watched was something special, from the talented performers to the wonderful direction. I cannot wait to go back and see this company again.
Reviewer - Johanna Hassouna-Smith
on - 26/1/19