Tony Roper’s The Steamie has become one of Scotland’s most loved plays, first staged in the late eighties it is, in Scotland at least, as big a Hogmanay tradition as whisky and shortbread. The television version, starring Scottish legends such as Dorothy Paul and Eileen McCallum is regularly repeated North of the border on New Year’s Eve. This year the stage version returns to Glasgow and Scotland’s biggest entertainment venue, the SSE Hydro for a limited run over the festive season, with Roper himself directing.
Set in the 1950’s, and the days before you would have a washing machine at home, a group of women spend their Hogmanay doing the family laundry at a public wash house colloquially known as ‘The Steamie’. They chat, sing, dance, and most importantly, solve the mystery of Mr Culfeather’s odd desire for another tattie whenever he eats Galloway’s mince.
The makers of Galloway’s mince are actually sponsoring this production, so iconic is that particular scene. When we reach it towards the end of act two, the audience are in hysterics before Mary McCusker’s Mrs Culfeathers has gone beyond the first line. But so much of Roper’s The Steamie is engrained in the Scottish culture that the audience were pre-empting almost every line, from Dolly and Magrit’s famous tango, to the hilarious phone call to Doreen’s (Fiona Wood) dream new home in Drumchapel, Roper’s play manages to capture so much of Glasgow life in the era.
A new opening number performed by the large, if rarely seen, ensemble reminds us that this is a uniquely Glasgow tale, but more importantly it’s a story about the women of Glasgow and the strength they draw from each other as their children squabble and their men lie drunk. It may surprise some fans to know that these women’s voices were penned by a man, so precise and insightful they are. Margrit’s monologue about life as a woman is replaced by a song, ‘Labour of Love’, in this version, but the message is just as strong.
The principal cast comprises the four ladies who each occupy a station in the washhouse, alongside Harry Ward as Andy, the loveable caretaker who ends up accepting a few too many drams. Louise McCarthy perfectly captures the Margrit that so many of us have only ever seen portrayed by Dorothy Paul, blending the toughness with the vulnerability in a way that only a Glaswegian could accomplish. Gayle Telfer Stevens is hilarious as Dolly, the chatterbox who shuffles around almost bent double, but the with a heart of gold that epitomises so much of what The Steamie is all about.
It is of course a comedy, and a fantastically funny one at that, with the Scottish vernacular used to its fullest extent, one liners like “he’s got a swagger that would dry yer washin’” land with ease for this home crowd, and although the narrative doesn’t really lead anywhere, it doesn’t have to; an ordinary day in the life of a Glasgow Woman is filled with enough drama and humour to fill an anthology of plays.
Under designer Kenny Miller, and with Ryan Dewar’s projections and Grant Anderson’s lighting, this stage play becomes an arena spectacular without losing an ounce of its intimacy. Filled with fun, frolics and a firm grasp of Glasgow life, those of us who have grown up loving The Steamie can revel in this bigger production that scrubs up so well.
The Steamie is at The SSE Hydro until 31st December 2019.