Theatre review: The Steamie, Dundee Rep

Becky Hope-Palmer’s new production of The Steamie for Dundee Rep is packed with laughter, invention, hilarity and truth, writes Joyce McMillan

Tinashe Warikandwa, Jo Freer and Suzanne Magowan in The Steamie at Dundee Rep PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Tinashe Warikandwa, Jo Freer and Suzanne Magowan in The Steamie at Dundee Rep PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The Steamie, Dundee Rep *****

A mighty tribute to the unsung domestic labour of women down the ages, a powerful social history of the 20th century delivered in two short hours, comic dialogue so brilliant that some audience members recall it word for word, and one of the finest and most moving series of songs ever written to complement a comic script – there’s not a lot to dislike about Tony Roper’s 1987 hit The Steamie, with songs by David Anderson; and so much to love that the feeling in the theatre can sometimes become overwhelming, especially given a production as surefooted and brilliant as this staging at Dundee Rep.

As fans will know, the action of The Steamie is set in a Glasgow municipal wash-house on Hogmanay 1950, slap bang in the middle of a century that saw tenement life in Glasgow boom, diversify and then partly bust, in spectacular style. As middle-aged housewives Dolly and Magrit, old Mrs Culfeathers and newlywed Doreen gather to get through their Hogmanay wash, they know the working-class tenement areas where they live may soon be facing mass clearances to new housing estates on the edge of the city; and the advance of post-war affluence, bringing washing-machines, televisions and fridges into homes that once had few facilities beyond a sink and a stove, will soon make collective gathering-points like the steamie redundant.

But their main concern is to get through the wash, catch up on gossip and have a bit of a “terr”, since it’s Hogmanay; and with the help or hindrance of the wash-house janitor Andy, they succeed brilliantly in all three.

When it comes to The Steamie, casting is key; and with Irene Macdougall playing Mrs Culfeathers, Suzanne Magowan as Magrit, Jo Freer as Dolly and Tinashe Warikandwa as Doreen – plus Ewan Donald in superb form as Andy – Becky Hope-Palmer has chosen something of a Dundee dream team, every one of them belting out the dialogue with precision and feeling, and delivering the songs with exactly the kind of down-to-earth energy and lyricism they demand.

It’s sometimes a tear-jerker of a show, no question, particularly when young Doreen sings so sweetly of her hopes for life in Drumchapel, “where dreams come true”, and when Jo Freer makes a truly magnificent job of Dolly’s heart-wrenching anthem, Don’t Let The Young Folk See You Cry. It’s also jam-packed, though, with laughter, invention, hilarity and truth; and if you want a brief glimpse of greatness in theatre – always unexpected, always thrilling – then Dundee is the place to be, from now until Saturday.

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Until 10 September