Steel Magnolias, Funny Peculiar, Play 250: The Jean-Jacques Rousseau Show

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Dundee Rep, FUNNY PECULIAR at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, and PLAY 250: THE JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU SHOW at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for the Scotsman Arts Magazine, 1.3.12
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Steel Magnolias 3 stars ***
Funny Peculiar 3 stars ***
Play 250: The Jean-Jacques Rousseau Show 4 stars ****

EVERY MORNING, at the moment, Dundee Rep Theatre is offering its social networking friends an image of what it calls the “1980’s hairstyle of the day”. The hairstyles are amazing, featuring superstars like George Michael and Cher in extraordinarily bouffant form; and I can’t help wishing that a little more of the wildness of those styles – their surreal quality, and their strange combination of delusion and ambition – had made its way into Jemima Levick’s affectionate but slightly dull Dundee production of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, the 1987 play which inspired the images.

Best known for its 1989 film version, with an all-star cast led by Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts, Harling’s play is set in the Lousiana hair salon of the astonishing Truvy, stylist, philosopher and friend to the women of her neighbourhood. Like other well-observed male tributes to women’s strength and endurance – The Steamie comes to mind – it shows a group of women aged between eighteen and eighty, living on the front line of life’s unavoidable crises, including birth and death, sickness and health, loneliness and bereavement; the point of the drama is that in a society where political feminism barely seems to exist, the all-female environment of the salon offers a vital support-system to these women, not unconnected with the morale-boosting effect of a good haircut.

In its quiet way, Harling’s play has a few things to say about the decade in which it was written; about the empowerment of women through work outside the home, about the growth of religious fundamentalism in America, about changing attitudes to homosexuality, and about the years in which we began to return to the dangerous idea that outward beauty reflects inner worth, rather than distracting from it.

None of these themes is clearly highlighted, though, in a Rep production that focusses in simple, soap-opera style on Harling’s slightly-too-explicit two-and-half-hour story of Truvy’s customer M’Lynn, her lovey daughter Shelby, and the cruel hand life deals them. Emily Winter is in fine form as the glamorous Truvy, with Natalie Wallace striking just the right note of uncompromising youthful energy as Shelby; and Irene Macdougall has many in the audience in tears, with her heartfelt performance as M’Lynn. Yet there’s a feeling that 25 years on, it might have been possible to achieve a wittier and more challenging perspective on Harling’s play, and on the decade that inspired it; the kind of perspective that is present in that ironic gallery of haircut pictures, but sadly absent from a well-crafted but soft-edged evening at the Rep.

If Steel Magnolias takes us gently back to the 1980’s, Mike Stott’s 1973 play Funny Peculiar – playing a brief visit to Edinburgh this week – offers a much more vivid and surreal confrontation with the sexual revolution that swept and stumbled its way through British society forty years ago. Part sharp northern social satire, part traditional English farce, Funny Peculiar is set in a small Pennine village where the permissive society has barely arrived, except in the yearning heart and body of young local shopkeeper Trevor, a frustrated intellectual of sorts.

What’s interesting about Funny Peculiar is the resolute way in which it breaks all the rules of traditional, patriarchal sex comedy; Trevor’s pursuit of a comely customer called Shirley is successful, her husband is not jealous, and Trevor’s heartbroken wife Irene turns out to be a more enthusiastic swinger than he is. In the end, Bob Tomson’s production doesn’t quite seem to know how to address a 21st century audience still uncomfortable with genuinely radical ideas about sex and the family; this is not the reassuring popular comedy it first appears to be.

Yet with Coronation Street’s Craig Gazey offering a boldly eccentric performance as Trevor – and an astonishing surreal crumpet-fight with a conventionally-minded baker delivering goods to the shop – this Funny Peculiar emerges as a show well worth seeing; particularly for connoisseurs of British popular culture, and the series of strange revolutions and backlashes which have shaken and stirred it, in the last half century.

If you want to glimpse the outlines of a possible 21st century revolution, though, then Oran Mor is the place to be, this week. To celebrate their 250th lunchtime show since 2004, David MacLennan’s astonishing Play, Pie and Pint team googled “250”, and came up with the fact that it is 250 years since the publication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, one of the founding texts of the French Revolution of 1789.

Their new Jean-Jacques Rousseau Show – a political cabaret co-written by a team of eleven writers, including Wildcat veterans David MacLennan and Dave Anderson, and a dazzling range of younger voices – is naturally much preoccupied with Scotland’s current situation, riven by economic inequalities, and faced with a constitutional choice that may or may not be relevant to the greater cause of social justice.

Yet the show succeeds in setting that contemporary debate in a deep historic context, thanks to some razor-sharp scriptwriting, a fine 18th-century-style pamphleteering design by Patrick McGurn, and a few terrific songs. There are excellent, witty performances from a five-strong cast, featuring young stars Julia Taudevin, Kirstin McLean and Brian James, with Dave Anderson and George Drennan. And there is one spine-shuddering moment when, after a hilarious spoof interview between Alex Salmond and Jeremy Paxman, Paxman’s chair is suddenly occupied by the spirit of revolution herself, who asks Salmond a few chilling questions about the real meaning of independence. It’s enough to make you want to sign up immediately to the little Social Contract printed on the back of your programme; and to accept its invitation to draw a picture, of the kind of Scotland you really want.

Steel Magnolias at Dundee Rep until 10 March. Funny Peculiar at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, and The Jean-Jacques Rousseau Show at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until Saturday.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

Emily Winter has long been one of the unsung stars of the Dundee Rep Ensemble; and now she excels herself with a strikingly understated yet richly-observed performance in the Dolly Parton role of Truvy, the hair-salon owner in Steel Magnolias. The title of the play implies the combined delicacy and strength of southern American women; Winter captures those qualities to perfection, and looks gorgeous, into the bargain.

ENDS ENDS

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