at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch
Robert Harling's classic tragicomedy, set in a Southern “beauty shop”, is cleverly constructed for maximum effect. Joy and despair, tears and laughter, with the one-liners, ripostes and put-downs equitably shared amongst the six ladies.
The Queen's do it proud. There's “pink plonk” for the interval, or an exclusive Pink Magnolia cocktail, and, on opening night at least, five dancers in jeans and check shirts for the wedding of Shelby and Jackson.
A superb stage design too [Dinah England], with a magnificent magnolia tree beyond the salon – see its petals fall, replaced by fairy lights as April turns to December. There's a practical pink basin, a proper hood dryer, a chicken door-stop and plastic bug blinds rippling in the breeze.
Liz Marsh's production manages the moods and keeps the pace lively. Some effective grouping, too, with the five ladies turning their curiosity onto newbie Annelle, or gathering eagerly round the baby photo. Or M'Lynn sitting quietly apart as the news of her selfless devotion to her daughter breaks. The salon falls still as Shelby's final struggle is recalled, before Clairee breaks the mood with a desperate joke.
Truvy's is as much a community support group as a hairdresser's, and the sense of strong, caring women coping with all that life throws at them is at the heart of the production.
Six excellent actors inhabit their roles: Queen's regular Sarah Mahony is Truvy, with bold eye-shadow and a restless energy, Lucy Wells her prayerful new apprentice. Shelby's warm, bubbly personality is beautifully suggested by Gemma Salter's nuanced performance; Claire Storey, as her mother, encompasses a huge emotional range, fussing and fretting at the beginning, raging at the unfairness of fate at the end. Their heart-to-heart in the gloom is the poignant turning point of the drama.
The two older ladies are nicely contrasted – Gilian Cally's wiry Ouiser, ankle socks and galoshes, and Clairee, former first lady of the town, glossily groomed, with racy red shoes. She's played to perfection by Tina Gray, who first appeared at the Queen's in 1971. Her every laugh is immaculately timed, her every word clearly audible. Elsewhere the accents – impressively authentic – and the wide stage meant that some lines were lost.
A lively, warm-hearted version of a favourite play, firmly set in “too colourful for words” 1980s Louisiana, but universal in its sympathetic portrayal of six remarkable women, sharing the good times and the bad in the humid intimacy of the beauty parlour.
photograph: Mark Sepple