Netflix Has Nothing On This: Review of BNT’s Steel Magnolias

With last night’s opening of Steel Magnolias, Ballarat National Theatre returned to tread the boards for the first time in 2 years. 

The audience too – some chose to stay in masks – were feeling their way in what would’ve been for many a first night out to a live performance in a long time. While online productions and podcasts (even award-winning ones like BNT’s Pride & Prejudice) can be affecting, and have seen the arts industry through the lockdowns, they’re nothing compared to being part of a live performance.

Perfectly cast, and a great choice of classic comedy-drama for the first post-COVID offering, Director Mary-Rose McClaren navigated her team through a production that included rehearsing on zoom, rehearsing in masks and an unfamiliar theatre space.

Steel Magnolias, made famous by the film adaptation starring Julia Roberts and Dolly Parton, is a stage play by American writer Robert Harling. Set in the 1980s, the play follows the lives, loves and losses  of the customers at Truvy’s hair salon in the American South. Based on Harling’s real-life sister, the play is a surprisingly deep and empathetic homage to the friendships of women.

Back L-R: Liana Skwes (Truvy), Linda Ogier (M’Lynn), Jess Hillman (Annelle) and Olivia French (Shelby)
Front L-R: Jeanette Baxter (Clairee) and Peppa Sindar (Ouiser)

The set design was more modern that we’ve seen from past BNT productions, but still very naturalistic, with some genuine vintage hairdressing items which added to the authenticity of the experience. The fun 1980s costuming by Laura Hudson (assisted by Sarah Kernagan) was more than clothes. The costuming really deepened character without moving into caricature – especially the subtle development of Annelle (Jess Hillman/Mika Wallace) from a new-to-town dead-beat into a born-again Christian.

A lot of the action took place looking out directly into the audience, as if in front of the salon mirrors, and there were a few moments of genius with the actors successfully looking like they were locking eyes through the non-existent mirrors. Jess Hillman (Annelle) and Liana Skewes (Truvy) were also able to perform with genuine emotions and reactions to the ladie’s gossip while simultaneously dressing people’s hair, which is no mean feat.

The cast needed time to dress and re-do hair backstage so between scenes black-outs were a little long, and the minor changes to the set dressing were mostly unnecessary, with the costumes adequately showing the passing of time. However, utilising the actors to set-up the Christmas decorations while grooving to some music between scene 1 and 2 was a welcome departure from waiting in the dark. 

The pace dragged in scene 1 – the longest scene of the play – and some nerves were evident in the younger members of the cast. But given that this is the company’s first production in 2 years, and the cast only took their masks off in rehearsal a few weeks ago – a slightly shaky start is understandable.

Jess Hillman (sharing the role of Annelle with Mika Wallace) was more at home in the second half, showing more confidence in the later version of the character. Peppa Sindar (Ouiser) delivered a strong performance as the snarky neighbourhood grouch, however she struggled with the Southern accent which unfortunately took us out of the world of the play in some pivotal moments.

There were many opportunities to laugh-out loud, particularly with the wise-cracking Miss Clariee, delivered with the expert deadpan comic timing of Jeanette Baxter.

Olivia French nailed the naive, stubborn, stylish and big-hearted Shelby, and the love-hate mother-daughter relationship between her and Linda Ogier (M’Lynn) was well developed.

Ogier was a slow-burner, taking her big moment and running with it in the final scene. She delivered a heart-wrenching monologue which had not only the audience – but also the rest of the cast – in tears.

Liana Skewes (also the Production Manager) was born to play Truvy. From the tips of her high heeled shoes to the top of her blown out blonde mane, Skewes expertly walked the line between middle-aged vixen and matronly mother-hen.

Clockwise from L: Linda Ogier (M’Lynn), Jeanette Baxter (Clairee), Liana Skwes (Truvy) and Olivia French (Shelby)

With plays that have been adapted to movies, there is always the danger of actors simply emulating their film counterparts, but director McClaren was able to guide the cast into their own interpretations of the characters.

Any dropped lines were covered expertly, so it will be interesting to see how the quality of the performance fairs with a different cast member in the mix as the understudies get their turn. I applaud BNT for the innovation of understudies and assistants on the production team – not only does it upskill people and expand the company – but is also an important fail-safe in the COVID era. 

Mary-Rose McClaren and her team have delivered a fun, colourful, emotive journey, which,  like life itself, has both laughter and tears. While a strong, but not mind-blowing production, it  was, in one major way, a revelation. 

BNT’s Steel Magnolias was a reminder that live theatre is a nuanced and visceral exercise in the communication of human emotion. And that’s something we’ve all been deprived of for too long.

It’s safe to say that live theatre is back. Netflix has nothing on this.

Steel Magnolias runs from 4-11 December at Mt Rowan Secondary College Theatre.

Book tickets online to secure your seat.

Megan J Riedl is a playwright, director and spoken word poet from Ballarat VIC. She is a member of BNT and champion of local theatre.

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