The world of The Steamie is long gone. Public laundries, where women came to wash their own – or other people’s – dirty laundry, had already almost disappeared by 1987, the year this play-with-songs was first presented by the leftwing company Wildcat Stage Productions. Set in the 1950s, it’s a couthie evocation of shared experiences and that spirit of communality that seemed to have been left behind when people moved away from their inner-city tenements and out to the housing schemes. To audiences in community venues across Glasgow in the 80s, it was almost as much a nostalgia piece as it is for us today. Yet if the details of the situation seem distant, at its core are shared experiences – of hardship and of loneliness – that feel sharply current.
It’s New Year’s Eve. In separate stalls, at big, ceramic sinks, Magrit, Doreen and Dolly are doing their family washing while Mrs Culfeathers (addressed formally on account of her age) struggles to finish the doctor’s wife’s laundry before 9pm – closing time. As the women work, they talk and sing, sharing news (“What did he die of?” “Lack of breath!”), gossip (sometimes vicious), dreams (of a washing machine; of a man for once sober; of meeting great-grandchildren, far away in England).
Tony Roper’s dialect-strong text and Dave Anderson’s popular-music-inspired songs peg the action securely to a line connecting reality and fantasy. Kenny Miller’s set, with its soaring classical facade of Corinthian columns pressing down on the scuzzy stalls of the steamie below, is an elegant visual metaphor. Becky Hope-Palmer’s direction, slightly cartoon-inflected, keeps the sentimental side of the story from oversudding, making good use of the strong talents of Jo Freer (Dolly), Irene Macdougall (first among equals as Mrs C), Suzanne Magowan (Magrit), Tinashe Warikandwa (Doreen) and Ewan Donald (the steamie’s manager). This play of times past still speaks to our present.