The Steamie

Aug 24 2023 | By More

★★★★☆      No minced opportunities

Loretto School (Venue 512): Wed 23 – Sat 26 August 2023
Review by Martin Gray

First staged in January, The Brunton’s production of The Steamie comes to Loretto School Theatre for a Fringe encore.

There can be few plays more beloved in Scottish theatre than Tony Roper’s couthy classic. Set on Hogmanay 1950, it centres on four Glasgow women scrubbing clothes at the local washhouse. They talk about their day, their plans for the night and, most poignantly, their dreams.

Sarah Lindsay, Caroline Hood, Sarah-Louise Donnelly and Norma Kinnear. Pic The Brunton.

They also talk about Galloway’s mince. A lot – but no one in the audience complained about Mrs Culfeathers’ rambling rendition of a meat mystery. Au contraire – or whatever that is in Glaswegian – a fair few audience members appeared to be mouthing along with lines such as ‘when ah put it doon to him, after the first moothful, you know what he says to me, Dolly?’

The scene was superbly put across by the cast on the first night of a short Fringe run. Sarah Lindsay is Mrs Culfeathers to the life, frail, forgetful, but not deid yet, taking in other people’s washing to get by (though she does need a hand to get through her mountain of smeared semmits).

First to hear the teatime tale is Norma Kinnear as cheery, talkative Dolly, proving the perfect feed for Roper’s well-observed dialogue. Caroline Hood as feisty Magrit and Sarah-Louise Donnelly as the youngest regular, Doreen, hoping for a move to the paradise that is Drumchapel, meanwhile get through their silent washing routines without cracking a smile, ready to hear the whole madly fascinating anecdote for the first time.

prams loaded

All the actresses are excellent from the moment they come onto the impressive set, prams loaded with the week’s washing, and begin their cleverly choreographed laundry routines. It’s easy to believe these ladies have known each other all their lives as they exchange easy banter, embrace one another’s eccentricities and even sing the odd song.

While Roper doesn’t stint on putting the toughness of his characters’s post-war lives out there, laughter is never far away; often the humour is black, to keep sentimentality at bay. At others it’s pure panto, such as Dolly’s attempts to wash away the dirt of a perhaps ill-advised peat bath are interrupted by maintenance man Andy.

Gary McGregor. Pic The Brunton.

Gary McGregor does well with a part that could easily be excised in any rewrite of the play; Andy wanders in, he chats up the ladies, he wanders off, he gets increasingly drunk, he wanders back in, he gives us his Al Jolson (happily without sooty blackface)… a tighter, Andy-less Steamie might be a very good thing, because it’s the women we’re here for. These hilarious, indomitable women.

David Ross wisely doesn’t mess with The Steamie, his solid, strong direction being all about trusting the words and the actors. David Anderson’s hummable songs, arranged by Brunton legend Tommie Travers, are subtly staged, forming an organic part of the action rather than a break from it.

It’s a shame the curtains at right and left couldn’t swipe further aside, though – Mrs Culfeathers is regularly reduced to a set of elbows when not centre stage.

If you’ve had your fill of experimental, zeitgeisty Fringe fare, and are ready for a proven classic, get down to the washhouse tonight. You may even get a wee sherry…

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including one interval)
Loretto School Theatre: Loretto School, 1-7 Linkfield Road, EH21 7RE (Venue 512)
Wed 23 – Sat 26 August 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm; Sat mat: 2pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

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