As The Steamie prepares for a 25th anniversary tour, Tony Roper explainsthe enduring appeal of the iconic play that very nearly didn’t make it
AT THE start of the 1980s, Tony Roper sat down to write his first play, about shipyard workers. A Scottish theatre he diplomatically declines to name had commissioned him, a labourer-turned-actor, to write a gritty piece based on his rivet-banging days.
Staring down at a blank sheet of paper he soon realised that Bill Bryden’s 1975 Play for Today Willie Rough had said everything about Clydeside already. Roper also knew, after years of touring community centres in a Transit van, that the audience for small-scale theatre was mostly female and largely in possession of a bus pass. What, he thought, would they enjoy? Where was the female equivalent of the shipyard? His mother had always talked about the steamie. So that became his starting point.
“I didn’t plot any of this out,” says Roper, 70. “I’m a heterosexual man. I didn’t do this from a feminist point of view, to redress any kind of balance. I’d never heard of feminism in that way. I just based it on the women I fondly remembered growing up with and the women I’d met throughout my life. There is a bit of my mother in all of them.”
The Steamie, set in a Glasgow wash house – the communal facilities where, pre-washing machines, all clothes were laundered – on Hogmanay, is an extended conversation between four generations of women. “There is no plot whatsoever,” says Roper, “but I do think it has a good structure.” Doreen, Dolly, Magrit and Mrs Culfeathers are, essentially, the same character at different stages of her life, starting off as the naive, optimistic new bride Doreen, longing for smart curtains for her good room, becoming the weary Mrs Culfeathers, taking in washing in her eighth decade.
The commissioning theatre hated it. If Roper consented to add in a narrative arc – Magrit’s purse could be stolen, Doreen and wash house attendant Andy might embark on an affair – they would reconsider. Otherwise it was in the bin. Every other theatre in Scotland, as well as all the TV production companies, concurred.
Unwilling to shoehorn in sex or skullduggery, Roper let The Steamie languish in his bottom drawer. Four years later, at rehearsals for Naked Video, Elaine C Smith was bemoaning the fact that Wildcat Theatre Company had been offered a last-minute grant for a play about a community. The shoestring operation, set up from the ashes of 7:84, had no plays about communities kicking around, and no time to commission one. Roper sympathised then mentioned that, in the best Blue Peter tradition, he had one he had prepared earlier. Smith showed his script to her Wildcat colleagues. It was, they all agreed, about a community. With the addition of a few songs – Wildcat’s speciality was left-wing musical theatre – it ticked all their boxes.
A three-week slot was booked at the Crawford Theatre, part of Glasgow’s Jordanhill College. (At this point, Roper’s main ambition was to “get through the run with no one being embarrassed”.) Before the curtain had gone up, Wildcat’s administrator called. Roper can still imitate her silky English accent. “Darling Tony. My phone has been ringing off the hook. My answering machine has collapsed. We have a hit on our hands.”
Directed by Alex Norton, who went on to fame as Taggart’s Chief Inspector Burke, starring Smith as Dolly, Dorothy Paul as Magrit and Katy Murphy, fresh from her triumphant Miss Toner in Tutti Frutti, as Doreen, “it flew off the wall. Everyone was talking about it. Newspapers offered tickets as a prize. And then all the TV companies wanted to do it.” STV’s version, broadcast on 31 December, 1988, and also starring Paul and Murphy, came second in a poll of the most popular Scottish TV shows of all time.
Since then, The Steamie has developed a life of its own. A couple of years ago Tom Urie – Big Bob from River City – proposed a drag version, with gay men playing Dolly et al. “They all had their own parts marked out,” Roper recalls. “Nobody wanted to play Andy.” A Finnish company tours the show for six months every year. “Of course it’s translated,” says Roper. “I don’t think they’d get it in England, never mind anywhere else.” Seeing the show as a youngster persuaded Neil Laidlaw that the theatre was the profession for him. Now a successful West End producer, he is putting on a 25th anniversary tour of The Steamie, with Roper directing.
“I keep thinking people will get fed up with it,” says the playwright, who still appears as Jamesie Cotter in Rab C Nesbitt, has a tiny part in the new David Tennant film The Decoy Bride and wore the sparkly cloak of Hector the Henchman in the Kings’ Theatre panto. “But it has become a ritual. The audience knows it. The actors can hear them whispering, here’s the mince bit, before they’ve even mentioned Galloway’s butcher shop.”
The Steamie has become as much a part of Scottish theatrical life as doing Taggart to pay for Christmas. Despite being 20-odd years too young, Roper’s Dolly is Jane McCarry, the nosy neighbour from Still Game. She was Doreen in an earlier show. Kay Gallie played her first Mrs Culfeathers in her 40s, and has now just about caught up with her character.
Roper’s anniversary version will, he says, play it straight. The cast have been chosen for their singing ability – Roper thinks the score, by Dave Anderson, is a huge asset to the play – as much as their acting skills. But the polka scene, the mince, the headscarves and curlers are all present and correct. “If it ain’t broke,” says Roper, who has made a good deal of money out of Magrit and Dolly’s pain over the years, “don’t fix it. It’s not meant to be King Lear. They just go and get their washing done.” «
The Steamie opens on 21 March at the Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, then tours Scotland
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