Review – The Steamie

Oct 24 2013 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩  Extremely funny revival

Church Hill Theatre
Wed 23 – Sat 26 October 2013
Review by Hugh Simpson

Edinburgh People’s Theatre’s revival of The Steamie, which plays at the Church Hill Theatre until Saturday, is thoroughly successful and very, very funny.

Tony Roper’s nostalgic play about four women gossiping on a 1950s Old Year’s Night, in the last days of the Glasgow wash-houses, has become a bona fide modern classic.

Joan Hunter, Mandy Black, Sheila Somerville, Ronnie Millar and Sarah Howley. Photo: Robert Fuller

Not only do productions seem to spring up everywhere, they now appear as likely as Shakespeare to be attended by groups who are studying the play at school.

This near-ubiquity can make it difficult for a production to stand out; there are also pitfalls in any staging. The play’s undoubted humour needs to be achieved through skill and timing; there is also a danger that the play’s couthie, pawky dialogue can mutate into mawkish sentimentalism.

There are no such mistakes made in EPT’s judicious revival of their successful 2008 production, which is a roaring success. One of the main reasons for this success is a simply magnificent performance by Sheila Somerville as the gossipy, dotty Dolly. Showing superb timing and a brilliantly controlled, joyful physicality, she is as funny as anything you will see this year.

She is well supported by Mandy Black as the downtrodden and sarcastic but still optimistic Magrit. Her comic sense and command of the stage make her the perfect foil. Between them, she and Somerville know exactly how long to milk the laughs, and exactly when to resume the dialogue so that none of it is lost.

John Somerville’s assured direction, anchored in the realistic but not a slave to it, means that any temptation to slide into mawkishness is firmly avoided. This is greatly helped by Joan Hunter’s performance as Mrs Culfeathers, the ageing, ailing woman forced by circumstances to carry on taking in other people’s washing. There is no self-pity in this beautifully lugubrious, deadpan depiction, which makes the payoff to the celebrated ‘mince’ routine all the funnier.

Nirvana is a Drumchapel council house

Andy, the maintenance man who is the play’s token male, can be a problematic role but is here discharged admirably by Ronnie Millar. He also has enviable timing and adds a certain pathos and self-awareness to what can be a somewhat stereotypical ‘patter merchant’.

The only newcomer to the cast since the 2008 production is Sarah Howley as Doreen, the younger woman whose idea of nirvana is a Drumchapel council house. She manages to be guileless without a hint of sentimentality, and is perhaps the most affecting singer.

Joan Hunter, Mandy Black, Ronnie Millar, Sheila Somerville and Sarah Howley. Photo: Robert Fuller

The performances of Dave Anderson’s songs are less impressive than the comedy acting, but the occasional lack of confidence means that the numbers, backed by musical director Anne Mackenzie’s sensitive piano accompaniment, ring true emotionally.

The attention to detail seen in the performances is carried over into every aspect of the production. John Somerville’s lighting is extremely accomplished, even if the dramatic way of signalling the songs is a little out of keeping with the staging. The excellent set, by Steve Roberts, is realistic and versatile, while the authenticity of the props can be gauged by the gasps of recognition and whispered (and not so whispered) reactions of large sections of the audience.

The audience’s enjoyment of the performance was evident throughout, and the warm, sustained applause was well deserved. As an evening’s entertainment, this is unashamedly recommended.

Running time 2 hrs 30 mins
Run ends Saturday 29 October 2013
Evenings Wed – Fri 7.30 pm, Matinee Sat 2.30 pm
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
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