Above a pub in North London, I sat in a darkened theatre, tears falling so quickly I didn’t have the chance to pretend there was just something in my eye. I glanced at my friend and noticed that she had the same problem. A pretty impressive outcome for a short play with a simple setting and apparently frivolous content. Especially as, having seen the film, I already knew the ending! It’s also notable that a play written in the 80s can still have such resonance today.
We are in a Louisiana beauty salon. We meet the different women that come and go and share their daily concerns. From new-to-town Anelle, who is guarding a troubled past, to outspoken Clairee, all of human life is here. In a seemingly frivolous setting, a story that is genuine and emotional unfolds.
Shelby is about to get married. Entering the salon with her mother M’Lynn, she enthuses over her expectations of her wedding day and of the life ahead of her. Presiding over all is the indomitable Truvy, who offers careful support and guidance to all of the ladies, and ensure that, if nothing else, they always look their best. Stomping into to complain about something or other is Ouiser, adding a delightful sarcastic note to the tenor of their conversations. As the story unfolds, we see a weakness that Shelby cannot control, and understand the price she has to pay for her happiness, while her mother looks on helplessly. Alongside this, each character overcomes her own personal doubts and fears through the help they offer each other.
The setting is simple – a rolling table, hair curlers, magazines, hairspray and more pink than I could be comfortable with. Our characters swap recipes, stories, advice and counsel, while engaging in primping and beautifying themselves. They do so with a light touch and sparkling wit, keeping the performance entertaining. Today, I wonder how a play written in this context would be received. Arguably, it reduces women to shallow members of society. Their concerns revolve around their men, their children, cooking, caring for others, religion. Yet somehow the play elevates the women rather than demeaning them. Their role in local society and community is absolutely vital. They create and cultivate the relationships around them and act as the bedrock of the place they call home.
Not only this, but it’s refreshing to see such nurturing relationships between women. Don’t get me wrong, this play is very funny and never slushy, but there is an overall sense that each woman is supported and respected by those around her. While I’m glad that films like Bridesmaids exist, I’ve often felt concerned that simply putting women into stereotypically ‘male’ roles is not the only type of equality. Celebrating the qualities of care over personal ambition is often lacking from portrayals of women. Often they are pitted against each other or themes of jealousy and resentment take precedence. It’s gratifying to see how women can be supportive yet equally strong, in fact tougher than their male counterparts.
It’s hard to pick out notable performances because each felt so genuine. Perhaps Stephanie Beattie has one of the most complex roles as M’Lynn, which she did with great sincerity, but all the cast delighted and amused in equal measure, completely taking me away from the fact I was watching a play and fully absorbing me into the story. I was especially touched to learn that the play, written by Robert Harling, was based on the true story of his sister’s diabetes.
Whether you’ve seen the film, heard the hype, or not, you must go and see this play. For an uplifting reminder of the triumph of human strength over adversity, and to have a good laugh and reminisce about the fantastic hair and clothing of the 80s. A must-see.