Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 2nd July 2013
Nell Dunn’s play is doing the rounds in Ian Dickens’s revival and while the all-female cast quite happily and valiantly bare all, this story of a Turkish room in an East End public baths is showing its age. In the thirty years that have passed since its original production, we have become more accustomed to hearing women speak frankly about their lives and sex and so on (e.g. The Vagina Monologues) that nowadays Steaming seems a bit tepid.
Every week a diverse group of women gather at the baths for respite from the hassles and stresses of their lives. The steam room is their refuge and the treatment a metaphor for cleansing themselves of the toxic influence of men. They pose the eternal question, “ Why are all men shits?” and, interestingly, acknowledge that women have to take some of the blame for the way they bring up their sons… It’s feminism but not a polemical piece – it is largely presented as a comedy where the personal is political. Largely. The script is uneven and patchy, clunkily changing gear like a learner driver.
The sessions are run by Violet (Kim Taylforth) who acts as a sort of den mother for her clients. Jane (Michelle Morris) introduces her recently single posh friend Nancy (Katherine Heath) to the place and the people – instant recipe for culture clashes. Nancy sets to ‘correcting’ the pronunciation of barmaid Josie (Rachel Stanley), who beneath her brash and coarse exterior is victim to an abusive (inexplicably German) boyfriend. Old Mrs Meadows (Patricia Franklin) brings her mentally ill daughter Dawn (Rebecca Wheatley) every week as a break from their grim existence in a dilapidated house – the inference is that their lives have fallen into neglect and decay since she became widowed. The cast are more than competent. Franklin and Wheatley form a comic duo along the lines of George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, although some of the laughs, at the expense of mental illness, don’t sit comfortably today. The mouthpiece of the play and the character whose ‘journey’ is the most defined is Josie – she gets all the choice lines and the more explicit speeches; the others don’t really match her in terms of spirit but that’s a problem with the writing rather than the performances. The problem is we don’t really bond with these characters. We learn about their situations through lengthy exposition – we are at a remove from them all along the line.
The baths are threatened with closure. They are to be replaced by a library. How times have changed! These days, they would be closed and the library along with them. And, in the second half, the play reveals its continuing relevance at last. The women campaign to save their precious resource, by challenging the myths perpetrated to justify the cuts. They fight back with facts and figures to blow the council’s argument out of the water. Josie speaks out for ordinary people, the old and the vulnerable: public services are a necessity. Thirty years on she should be leading the Labour party and fighting the self-serving coalition’s cuts, and we should be behind her.
Not as sentimental as the more recent Calendar Girls, Steaming is well-presented and performed but three decades on, appears to have gone off the boil.