JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE STEAMIE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman 29.10.13
4 stars ****
OF ALL THE SHOWS in the repertoire of Scottish theatre, The Steamie often seems like the one least in need of yet another revival. Produced everywhere from the Royal Lyceum to Pitlochry itself in the years since its 1987 Wildcat premiere, the show was seen on the professional stage as recently as last year, in a 25th anniversary touring production.
Yet familiar though it is – so familiar that the audience actually ripple with recognition as the cast begin some of the set-piece sequences – there’s something about Tony Roper’s fine popular play-with-songs, set in an old Glasgow wash-house on a New Year’s Eve in the early 1950’s, that never fails to touch and entertain audiences. With David Anderson’s terrific series of songs offering a powerful political and romantic commentary on the lives of the four female characters, the show offers both a precise and loving record of a lost tenement way of life in mid-20th-century Glasgow, and a deep sense of how these characters and their troubles fit into the “big picture” of working-class history.
Small wonder, then, that audiences adore the play, and that the fine cast Ken Alexander has assembled for this autumn production at Pitlochry make light work of transforming this passionate and brilliantly theatrical script into a production to treasure. The show seems to lack a sound-designer; this steamie is strangely silent, free of the splash and gurgle of water, and the singing – with simple piano accompaniment – seems deliberately rough-edged, like the sound of ordinary women singing from the heart. Yet the ensemble work from Jeanette Foggo, Helen McAlpine, Jenny Lee and Julie Coombe is almost flawless; and when they gather, hands linked, in a last tableau of female solidarity, after their final song All The Best When It Comes, there is – for very good reason – hardly a dry eye in the house.