After a few years gathering dust in a drawer, Tony Roper’s comedy-drama The Steamie finally hit the stage in 1987. More than 30 years on, the play remains a household name. David Pollock finds out why it is a favourite among Scottish audiences and speaks to Roper about his unconventional introduction to theatre
Ever since its debut community performance in Glasgow in 1987, the popularity of The Steamie has snowballed, becoming one of the great commercial and critical success stories of Scottish theatre history.
Yet the play had been rejected by every company in Scotland until Wildcat finally took a chance on it. At least, that’s how the playwright Tony Roper remembers it.
“I’d sent it round and told them I’d been paid so they could have it for free,” he recalls, “but none of them wanted it. ‘You can tell it’s been written by an actor,’ they said. That stuck in there,” he thumps his chest.
“You mean actors have no imagination? If anybody knows where a play works it’s the actors, believe me, because they’ve sat through the good nights, the horrible nights… That annoyed me, but anyway.”
We’re sitting in a cafe named after Roper’s play in Glasgow’s fashionable Finnieston area, alongside his wife Isobel. She was there right from the start of The Steamie, returning home from work as a dancer during the 10-day flurry in which he wrote it to offer a fellow performer’s opinion.
A short walk to the south is the site of the city’s former shipbuilding yards, and the ‘steamie’ – the communal washing house – at Cranstonhill, which Roper knew well as a teenager in the 1950s.
“All of the characters were from people I know,” he says, now 78 but still eagerly energetic. “That’s the actor in me – I’d have to imagine a proper living character who touched the earth when they walked, who breathed the same air as me. I couldn’t do that when I played Chekhov, for example, because I couldn’t reach out and touch the character.”
Neither Roper nor his family had a background in theatre, and when he left school with no qualifications he worked variously as a coal miner, shipyard worker and building-site labourer. “Anything that didn’t make me think, I was quite happy with,” he says. “Just give me a hammer and let me knock lumps out of something, that was me.”
He has no idea why he answered a newspaper advert for a local amateur dramatics company, but the director insisted he had something and that he should audition for a place at Glasgow Drama College (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). Roper was accepted at the age of 27, and before graduating three years later he had already played professionally with the touring Century Theatre ensemble.
‘I thought I might as well write for the audience that was coming to see these touring shows, and that was women’ – Tony Roper
Throughout the 1970s his stage career included Red Runner by his friend Billy Connolly, as well as a tiny part in the cult film The Wicker Man. Yet it was in the following decade, by which time he was in his 40s, that he became a household name as part of the television sketch ensemble Naked Video, and as Jamesie Cotter, luckless best friend and foil to Gregor Fisher’s Rab C Nesbitt.
Although The Steamie emerged amid the height of his onscreen fame, its origins were earlier in the decade. Having just completed a community theatre run of Adrian Mitchell’s satire on colonialism Man Friday, the company involved asked him to try writing his first play. “I’d never done it before,” he says, “but I thought I might as well write for the audience that was coming to see these touring shows, and that was all women.”
A chance conversation led to the idea for the setting, yet Roper’s play was rejected. “The Steamie is just four women getting through their working day,” he says. “There’s no plot, but they wanted me to put one in; somebody getting her purse stolen, or whatever. I thought: ‘Nah’, and they really didn’t want to do it. It made no difference, I got £500 for the attempt and stuck it in a drawer.”
Nearly half a decade later, The Steamie was brought back to life by a Naked Video colleague, the actor and eventual star of the show, Elaine C Smith, who also worked with Wildcat. She mentioned that the company had a grant to stage a play about ‘communities’, and Roper said they could have his play if it helped them get the money.
Wildcat snapped it up, and under the direction of Alex Norton, with Smith and Dorothy Paul leading the cast and new songs by David Anderson, the show became a word-of-mouth hit that graduated to much bigger stages.
In 1988, Scottish Television – whom Roper went with over BBC Scotland because they gave him his own script edit – broadcast a Hogmanay special of the show, which won a BAFTA and became a fixture on Scottish screens for years. Smith was not cast, however, simply because she was too young to play the 50-something Dolly on screen, a source of regret for Roper.
Although he has written three more plays, three novels (one an adaptation of The Steamie) and an autobiography, Roper’s enduring reputation is largely bound up in that of this play, which – in terms of success and truthfulness to its subject – deserves to be spoken of as a Scottish classic in the same breath as Black Watch or Knives in Hens. Teamed with producer Neil Laidlaw, he is now the director of every official version of the play, including its upcoming six-show run at Glasgow’s 12,000-capacity Hydro arena.
“I’ve seen it before when other people have done it [since Norton], and I’ve never been impressed,” Roper says. “The mistake is, they think they have to do a comedy and it’s the opposite of how to make it work. You’ve got to do it for real – the women go there for a reason, not to have a great day. It’s hard bloody work, but the laughs come out of that unconsciously… play it like a drama and the comedy comes.
“It’s a really hard play to do,” he says, and Isobel remarks that there’s a sadness to it as well. “Oh aye, it’s sad,” Roper responds. “The people in it are like [the audience’s] mothers, their fathers, their grandparents, but done with affection. And I have to say, I wrote them with affection. That’s what it’s about at the end of it. Not that.” He lifts his phone. “Not that.” He draws a television screen in the air with his fingers. “It’s about what we’re doing now, passing time with each other. That’s why it’s so enduring. There is no plot because it doesn’t need a plot, it just needs human beings.”
The Steamie runs at the SSE Hydro, Glasgow, from December 27 to December 31. Details: thessehydro.com