There are few works in the history of Scottish theatre that occupy a place as rarefied as Tony Roper’s 1987 community hall hit The Steamie and arguably no others that could have supported a five-day run at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro.
A cavernous, 12,000-capacity amphitheatre, the Hydro has hosted artists including Taylor Swift and Prince, although it’s also been home to the roaringly successful stage versions of Scottish sitcom Still Game. The Steamie is the first original stage play to be seen here.
The timing of this run just before New Year reflects both the fact that Scottish Television’s 1988 screen recording of the play was staple Hogmanay viewing for many years, and the play’s setting on a New Year’s Eve in the 1950s.
The Steamie sees four working-class Glaswegian women attempt to get through the onerous last wash of the year at the local communal washhouse; the “steamie” of the title.
Louise McCarthy plays fearsome Catholic matriarch Magrit; Fiona Wood is young Doreen, dreaming of matinee idols; Gayle Telfer Stevens plays the world-weary, gossiping Dolly; Mary McCusker plays the lonely old Mrs Culfeathers, a subdued character who ends up owning the show in the play’s standout scene, a discussion about buying her husband mince. McCusker performs it with exquisite comic timing.
The joy of the piece comes from Roper’s perfect understanding of his characters and what moves them, and his masterful way with the unsentimental ‘banter’ of Glaswegian Scots dialect, wrapping the simplest observation and the most deeply felt emotion in playfully barbed humour.
This new staging employs a wider ensemble of 13 to add scope to exterior and interior song-and-dance sequences, with David Anderson’s original songs and a couple of additions by Gordon Dougall lending it the air of a period musical. Roper’s direction of his core cast is excellent. They make the play crackle.