It’s a modern issue: technology created to make our lives easier can encourage isolation and a disconnection from humanity. These days it’s the internet and mobile-phones; in the early 1950s, when this play is set, it was televisions and washing machines. Tony Roper’s popular 1987 bittersweet comedy-musical takes place in a public washhouse, the titular steamie, just as the post-war economic boom was about to trickle down some to the working-class, granting them amongst other things washing machines that would make housewives’ communal-washroom socialising, and the solidarity that went with it, a thing of the past. Set on Hogmanay, the characters share with each other their thoughts, feelings and deepest desires as they scrub their families’ suds.
An amusing and at times moving night
Director Alison Peebles’ good-natured and vigorous production balances well the comedy and pathos, supported by four excellent performances from the leading ladies, with Julie Austin’s brash Catholic Magrit a standout. The main trouble with the show is the slightly clangy renditions of Dave Anderson’s songs; the singing, a few off-key moments aside, is charming, but the instrumentation behind it feels lackluster. You might ague that slicker music would be inconsistent with the working class nature of the characters and setting, or that they feel too sentimentally escapist, but then why furnish the set with glittering disco balls and starry backlighting when those songs are playing, and isn’t the whole idea that they’re having an indulgently sentimental moment? In the end, though, the emotion behind the music wins out over the technical faults, resulting in an amusing and at times moving night out. One objection might be made to the text: on one hand, the hardships of working-class women are poignantly expressed, not least in Austin’s a-day-in-the-life monologue; on the other hand, there’s a certain glorification of the pride these women take in their housewife roles, seeming less like an examination of how they psychologically cope with their hardship than a justification for their subjection. It also continues the more general practice of portraying the working class as practically a thing unto itself, with little or no indication or implication of the system that put them there.
King’s Theatre, Sep 28 – Oct 3, then touring