Robert Harling's comedy/drama is a gift to actresses. It's incredibly funny (the number of highly quotable one-liners would fill up multiple pages) but also strongly emotional, and manages to capture six rich characters living wildly different and intriguing lives over four scenes located in one Louisiana Beauty Salon. It's no wonder the play went from first production in 1987 to a much-beloved film two years later, and just as obvious why it'd be revived frequently all over the world.
Jordan Best directs a production that does honour to the text. There's a couple of shaky points, which I'll get to, but by and large this is a show that brings the laughs and the tears in equal measure, and keeps an audience engrossed for two-and-a-half hours.
The heart of the show is the sometimes testy, but ultimately loving, relationship between Shelby (Nell Sipley) and her mother, M'Lynn (Karen Vickery). And this heart beats strongly. Shipley is warm, impetous, determined and brave, and it is impossible not to take her to your heart. And Vickery delivers a goddamn powerhouse performance - I've not seen her on Canberra stages before and now I want to see her frequently. She brings heart, soul, style, wit, charm, and devastating passion as required.
The best lines of the show go to Clairee (Liz Bradley) and Ouiser (Judi Crane) - and both bring their best one-liners out hilariously - Bradley as the ex-lady-mayoress finding new joy in a new career later in life, Crane bringing her curmodgeonly best as the ever-cantankerous Ouiser. There is a slight case of wobbly accents and wobbly lines here and there with both, but hopefully this was opening night nerves and will settle down shortly.
As the two employees of the salon, Truvy (Rose Braybook) and Annelle (Amy Dunham) are slightly backgrounded in this production - Dunham as the newcomer gets a bit more to do with hilarious naivety and social ineptitude (she's even that rare thing, an endearing born-again-Christian) while Braybook is likeable and charming.
Michael Sparks' set is a beauty, with plenty of clever little details (the back window, for instance, isn't in the text but adds humour and style to the show). Emma Sekuless' costumes are mostly smart and stylish (although the costumes in the final scene for Bradley and Dunham seem to be slightly out-of-kilter - they're a little too "ridiculous fashions of the 80s" for a production that's otherwise in-period but not in-your-face about it). In a show where hair is vital, Charles Oliver and Penny Vaile's work is spot-on and makes Truvy's work look great.
In short, this is a great launch to Rep's 2014 season, combining lots of laughs and just a few tears for a charmingly loveable production.