The Steamie – Dundee Rep

Written by Writer Tony Roper

Directed by Becky Hope-Palmer

Songs by Dave Anderson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hogmanay in the fifties. But we’re not in our glad rags partying it up in the high rises and tenements, no, Tony Roper’s firm Scottish classic The Steamie finds us throwing on a pinny and getting our hands into the basin of Glasgow’s washer-women empire. Following the post-Christmas rush of four women who run, scrub, and gab their way into the new year – and potentially, a new Glasgow. One where the heart of the community is slipping away, but you can always count on one thing – yer pals.

Arriving to the gentle murmurs of flickering festive carols, three women get to grips with the mountain of festive washing to do for their families and paying customers. But bringing up the rear is Jo Freer’s exceptionally charismatic and charming Dolly – who kicks off The Steamie, remembered for its heart-warming and compassionate humour which, while appreciated by generations, speaks to an audience who long to hear from these characters once again – characters they call family.

With enthusiastic aggression to their comedy, Suzanne Magowan’s Margit demonstrates Becky Hope-Palmer’s wonderful direction which places an emphasis on character and stresses the emotion of Tony Roper’s script. Magowan’s harsher edge enhances the comedic delivery and adds an additional depth of poignancy to their vocals – displaying a more authentic and earthen delivery. 

Song which, conceived by Dave Anderson, range from the bitter-sweet and well-written to a more surface level, yet cheery affair. Anderson’s ballads largely further the narrative and are so well known by fans of the production that these numbers, and indeed the long winding speeches are mouthed and recited by audiences with the same gusto and flair as this stellar cast, featuring some marvellous moments from Ewan Donald’s ever-suffering and toddy taking handyman Andy.

But occasionally, Roper’s writing offers a break of pathos from the humour, breathing room for the audience and a short sharp tug at their heartstrings at the hands of the wants, desires and let’s be frank, difficulties these working-class women were undertaking. From the long hours to the hints of alcoholism, there’s a recognisable vulnerability to the likes of Tinashe Warikandwa’s Doreen, the youngest of the four women, or Magowan’s Margit with her reluctance to return home and discover what stage of pickling her husband is in.

And while there’s a degree of recognisability in the entire cast, there isn’t a Scot alive who hasn’t known and loved a Mrs Culfeathers, played with profound sincerity and warming comedic touch by Irene Macdougall. Never weak or feeble, Mrs Culfeather’s place as the ‘retiring’ generation of steamie users is a touching juxtaposition against the emerging contemporary within Roper’s script. A Glasgow where people shut themselves within their high-rises, technology their companion, Macdougall’s Mrs Culfeathers remains a vivid and integral part of the women’s lives, a reminder of their friendship. Just don’t ask her where she gets her mince from.

As the last bell rings ahead of the New Year, there’s a mesmerically comforting aura to the production – one can feel the clamminess of the water, the intense thickness of the steam and heat emanating from Kenny Miller’s authentic set design. Going above, quite literally, and beyond, Miller’s set makes the decision to include the streets of Glasgow above – the finely carved pillars of the city above, deserted on Hogmanay night, completely unaware of the hustle and bustle below. It’s a detail that many would have skipped, but a reinforcer of the blind-sighted nature of those who employ the women of the steamie, completely unaware of its existence and presence.

Celebrating its 35th anniversary, Roper’s work may persist with a nostalgic aura, but its heart of community and song rings of value to this very day. And heading into the colder months, The Steamie remains a warming and endearing piece of Scottish theatre – a firm favourite for good reason, this glorious re-staging is as deserving as ever.

Glorious re-staging

The Steamie runs at The Dundee Rep until September 10th.

Tickets for which may be obtained here.


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