It is often said that there are many more strong male roles than strong female roles in the theatre. American drama Steel Magnolias took a small step towards redressing this balance with its cast of six leading ladies when it opened at the Lyric on 7 March 1989.
Originally seen off-Broadway, when Steel Magnolias was staged in London it featured an impressive company including Joely Richardson, Rosemary Harris, Stephanie Cole, Jean Boht, Maggie Steed and Janine Duvitski. It was directed by Julia McKenzie, better known for her exploits in musical theatre.
For Richardson – daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson – 1989 was the year her career began to build momentum. Her appearance in Steel Magnolias complemented appearances in Poirot and Behaving Badly. Having mostly worked on screen since – most notably in American drama series Nip/Tuck – Richardson returned to the West End stage in 2002 to appear alongside her mother in Lady Windermere’s Fan.
English-born Harris has worked extensively on both sides of the Atlantic. Prior to Steel Magnolias she appeared with Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre, her roles including Ophelia in Hamlet, the National Theatre’s first production at the Old Vic. On Broadway she won a Tony Award for her performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion In Winter. Jennifer Ehle, her daughter with American writer John Ehle, followed in her mother’s footsteps by appearing at the Old Vic in 2005’s The Philadelphia Story.
Cole is best known for her television appearances in Tenko, Open All Hours, Waiting For God and Doc Martin, but has not been a stranger to the London stage, appearing in A Passionate Woman at the Comedy in 1994, Quartet at the Noel Coward in 1999 and Blithe Spirit at the Savoy in 2005.
Duvitski went on to regularly appear with Cole in retirement home comedy Waiting For God. Often seen as a quirky character on the screen, Duvitsky has a wealth of theatre experience to her name, appearing in landmark productions such as Abigail’s Party and The Coast Of Utopia.
Boht is also best known for a BBC sitcom; she played Nellie Boswell in Liverpool-set series Bread, which ran between 1986 and 1991. Boht regularly appeared at the Royal Court during the 70s and early 80s, and last performed in the West End in 2006’s Embers.
Steed, like many of her Steel Magnolias co-stars became a face associated with British television comedy, appearing in Shine On Harvey Moon, Pie In The Sky, Born And Bred and Jam And Jerusalem, though she has also appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.
Steel Magnolias most famously went on to be made into a film starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts, who was Oscar nominated and won a Golden Globe for her performance.