Biggleswade Amateur Theatre Society has been a staple supplier of quality performances for decades, probably most renowned for their bold and brassy annual pantomimes, and their recent production of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias was another testament to the brilliance of this amazing group.
Set in Louisiana in the mid-80s, the story takes place in a town beauty parlour, focussing on four key moments over three years that effect the lives of six local women:
Truvy is the owner of the parlour (played by Kerry Hewish) and is the optimistic and pragmatic anchor for the others. Annelle (Erin Crockford) is a young newcomer to the community looking for work and a sense of identity. Ouiser (Kay Young) is an old, grumpy cynic opposite her life-long best friend, Clairee (Natasha Leftwich), who is the sassy, young at heart widow of the town’s mayor. M’Lynn (Melanie Wilcox) is the group’s career woman and family matriarch with Shelby (Sarah Ridley)as her daughter, often at loggerheads as she tries to assert her own passage into independence away from her mother.
The performance was a delight to behold as each actor created very believable southern American women and imprinted their personal stamp on each character. It is a script that emulates the naturalistic flow of long-time friends’ informal chatter so shifts from topic to topic rapidly which the women delivered confidently, establishing their relationships with each other and engaging us as if we were in the shop awaiting our turn in the chair (enhanced by the meticulous detail of the set and intimacy of the Methodist Church staging). Special shout-outs must go to Hewish and Crockford for their faultless multi-tasking: deftly coiffuring the parlour’s patrons’ hair-dos whilst delivering their lines fluidly.
Young and Leftwich made for a hilarious partnership – and indeed were responsible for the funniest saddest moment in a narrative I can think of – their worldly wisdom (jaded and nostalgic respectively) contrasted each other with wit and profundity in equal measure.
Wilcox (who also directed) and Ridley presented their mother-daughter relationship with aplomb, able to switch between familial affection and contempt as recognisable in any family dynamic.
The humour was plentiful, played through punchlineperfect timing, characterisation and incidental interactions, but perhaps most praiseworthy was the raw emotion they were able to muster on stage: from a harrowing diabetic seizure to the anger and tears of an inexplicable death, which moved the audience to empathetic sniffles and throat clearing.
This was a truly magnificent play, performed to a standard one would expect from professionals and it is a genuine shame that royalty complications restricted their run to only the two nights. Perhaps they may be tempted (or persuaded) to revisit it in the future but, nevertheless, it certainly is exciting to think of where BATS will go from here.