‘Steaming’ is a 1981 very funny comedy with many sad passages, written by English playwright Nell Dunn. First staged at Theatre Royal, Stratford, in London, it won the 1981 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. It still tours about every six or 7 years, the last Australian tour being in 2010 with Val Lehman. However, this most professional production is by a local team in Mandurah.
This Stray Cats Theatre Company has teamed up with the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre. This brief season has curtain up for the 140-minute show, at 7.30 nightly until Sunday the 17th August. There is a Saturday matinee.
A little history. The first time I saw this play, was in the UK, when some of the group I went with had to have a few things explained to them; one was ‘planing’ (the man’s tongue action) and the other ‘a vibrator’!! When you think that the first sex shop in the UK – ‘Ann Summers’ – was opened only about 8 years previously, and with no internet, Google, and adverts for such ‘implements of sin’, they were found only in special, under-the-counter, Adult magazines. Now, any ten year old would have a fair idea.
Last night, strangely, the one word that no one seemed to know the meaning of, was ‘Borstal’, it is a custodial institution for young offenders (named after a small town in the south of England where the first borstal was built).
With many houses in the poorer areas of big cities having neither baths nor hot water systems, the tenants had to go the local swimming baths, where there were Turkish Baths, in order to have a thorough wash. The attendants were often a shoulder to cry on, they did pedicures and generally helped the poor and old have a better life.
Now back to the story.
The venue is a Turkish Baths in the east end of London, in the late ‘70s. There has been a huge amount of work put into this set. There is a large above ground pool, but with layers of dais built around, it became ‘in ground’. There is a steam area, showers, lounging beds mirrors and storage area. Designed by Karen Francis, the set was built by Mathew Sleet, Thomas Hennessy and Patrick Cordwell. Very impressive.
Pop music of the era fills the arena, as the caring attendant, Violet (Judi Johnson) goes about her morning tasks, replacing dirty towels and tidying up ready for her regulars. The first to arrive are the elderly Mrs Meadow (Beryl Francis) and her Down’s syndrome (?) daughter, Dawn (Monique Kinnest) of whom she is very protective. Upsettingly, Mrs Meadow’s other daughter refuses to have anything to do with her mother. Dawn is ordered by her Mum to weigh herself and then sit in the steam room. The maternal love is confused as poor plump Dawn is trying hard to lose weight, whilst being fed chocolate biscuits by her Mum.
Next to arrive is Night Club hostess, Josie (Diana Oliver) who has a new German boyfriend who, as Josie explains to Violet, is capable of making love for hours at a time. Violet shouts to the boiler man, Bill (voiced by Ian Butcher) to turn up the water temperature, but he shouts back that the pump has seized. The swimming baths are crumbling about them.
Sneaking in quietly, is a very shy young woman, Nancy (Tracy Bolton), she explains that she is looking for her friend Jane. Violet makes her a cup of tea, but it is obvious by the Gerald Durrell book in her hand, her posh accent and smart clothes that she is not from around these parts. When Jane arrives, Nancy looks relieved, desperate to get someone to listen to her troubles.
Slowly, as the girls unwind, their sad stories are shared. Then unexpectedly, the group get terrible news.
Karen Francis is a wonderful director, she manages to transfer to her cast what is required, builds up enthusiasm and takes them on a wild ride to success. This play was no different, yet another success.
The play has huge demands on the cast, but with the very sad story threads, the audience have a rollercoaster ride of exhilaration, sadness, lots of belly laughs and a few tears. Sadly, this play is most famous for its boobs etc., and bad language, but in fact, because of the professionalism of the director and dedication cast the whole show is inoffensive. It is not sleazy and with no vulgar or suggestive moves, just good clean, nude fun.
The play characters are not top models, as one professional production had about 20 years ago, but everyday poor women having a weekly gathering. I have heard it said that the theme is ‘outdated’ but in a couple of areas in the UK, there are still baths like those depicted.
For this play to be successful, the cast had to be completely relaxed about their bodies (you were ALL beautiful) so that the dialogue was not stunted in its delivery by any embarrassment. If the cast of a show feels self-conscious, then the audience will feel twice as bad as voyeurs.
The audience was mainly couples over 55 yrs., although there were some young ones too. It was wonderful to hear the oldies laughing so uproariously at the script and superb presentation, as in their youthful days, all of this would have been ‘not for discussion at home!’
The complete cast were wonderful, giving full depth to their performances. All were tremendous sports, however a special mention must go to Diana as Josie who had moods ranging from near orgasm, to tears, jealousy and being a suspected rape victim, all perfectly depicted.
Normally when I mention the pleasing programme, it is because there is nothing else worth mentioning about a show; however, this really is the best programme that I have seen this year. Congrats to Kristie Hennessy.
It seems strange to find that a dresser was required in a show with so few clothes, but Sheryl Gale worked overtime as all the actors robed up for their next entrance. This is a well-written hilarious play, superbly presented with a comfortable, non-embarrassing flow to it. Your Granny will love it – and I suspect there were a few Great Grandmothers in the audience. Have a fun night out and a giggle.