“Out-and-out hilarious .. a cleansing experience “
Many plays aspire to be immersive, but few could claim that word as literally as Scottish favourite The Steamie. Set in a Glasgow wash-house one 1950’s Hogmanay, this much-loved play is a rhapsody of basins and bubbles – following the gossipy banter of four local women as they look forward to the party to come. And in this out-and-out hilarious version of The Steamie, Lothians-based Quirky Pond faithfully recreate the unique ambiance of the communal laundry – starting with David Rowley’s set that is so realistic, I swear I even smelt the soap-suds in the air.
If the truth be told, Tony Roper’s 1987 script teeters on the borderline between the charmingly nostalgic and the wilfully old-fashioned. Very little actually happens – and while we get to know and love its cast of four indomitable women (plus one hapless man), the directions in which their characters develop are thoroughly predictable ones. So The Steamie will never make for a night of thought-provoking theatre, but it’s a carefree celebration of a simpler and friendlier age, a world which (if it ever existed) vanished down the plug-hole many years ago.
Director Andy Corelli has understood this straightforward appeal, and delivered a production that’s filled with witty detail yet feels uncomplicated too. There are plenty of crowd-pleasing set-pieces, while a constant bustle of physical activity sets the scene for a joyful gallop through Roper’s dense script. All of the cast display impeccable timing – faultlessly selling the humour Roper extracts from the unlikeliest of topics – and Sam McNab’s effective lighting creates some highly believable vignettes, bringing scenes from the characters’ imaginations right into the eponymous wash-house.
Among a uniformly strong cast, Alice T Rind deserves special note for her portrayal of Mrs Culfeathers – the steamie’s ageing matron, whose single-minded monologues underpin much of the script’s most memorable humour. But all of the characters are rounded and developed, avoiding the stereotypes which might bedevil a lesser treatment of Roper’s script. And there’s no doubting that the audience – some of whom knew the play so well they were reciting favourite lines a few seconds ahead of the cast – loved every minute of it. One of Rind’s best punchlines even triggered that ultimate accolade, a show-stopping round of spontaneous applause.
As a Steamie first-timer, though, I spotted a handful of minor issues. The opening scenes seemed a little rushed, especially as my Edinburgh-tuned ears struggled to adjust to full-throated Glaswegian. It was difficult to visualise the world outside the wash-house – they could surely have made more of their 1950’s soundtrack to help set the scene – and, churlish though it might be to comment on this, I sometimes sensed that the actors were enjoying themselves just a tiny bit more than I was. The fourth-wall-busting opening, which saw the whole audience joining in to get the party started, set an expectation of camaraderie which the rest of the play never quite managed to match.
These, though, are details. This is a laugh-aloud treatment of a laugh-aloud script, and a play which somehow contrived to make me nostalgic for a time I can’t even recall. And more than that, it’s reminded me of the importance of blether and friendship. This play about laundry is a cleansing experience for even the most jaded of souls.
Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 27 March)