Steaming was written in 1981 by Nell Dunn and was first staged at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, in London, winning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy . It is part of an ambitious and varied summer season of plays, the programming of which does the Grand great credit.
Dunn presents six women meeting at a Turkish Baths in the east end of London. They comprise the Baths attendant and de facto narrator , Violet (Kim Taylforth), a tart with a heart, Josie (Rachel Stanley),a batty old woman ( Patricia Franklin) and her repressed dependent daughter Dawn ( Rebecca Wheatley),a posh bird Nancy (Katherine Heath) and her Hampstead Set friend Jane (Michelle Morris). Bill the caretaker is only occasionally heard as a disembodied voice from off-stage and is never seen.
When it was written, Steaming was groundbreaking in two respects, its all female cast, and its nudity, the latter pre-dating Calendar Girls. Thirty years on, the script resonates in part, and not in others. By 1981 Germaine Greer feminism was a spent force and the more modern female confidence espoused by the likes Madonna had yet to find traction. The bawdiness of fleeting nudity and bare flesh may appeal to a male audience, but there is little that is racy. A female audience may feel that the world of a woman has been more expertly explored by Shirley Valentine and the Vagina Monologues. However the play does offer insight into , and how, women were thinking a quarter of a century ago, embracing topics which endure- unhappy marriages, the responsibilities of motherhood, men and, of course, sex!
The single set comprises loungers and changing area with the baths themselves set backstage, a device which works well. Some cast members change with modesty and decorum, others are considerably less inhibited with an unexpected topless scene which brought howls of laughter from the audience. A contemporary soundtrack is a delight with the Clash’s “London Calling” an apposite overture, followed by numbers from Soft Cell, the Jam and Tears for Fears ratcheting up nostalgia for the era.
Rachel Stanley is the star of the show as Josie – sexy, down on her luck, but with energy and optimism to burn. Funny, strident and vulnerable, she is also required to bare the most flesh, and delivers admirably in all categories. Kim Taylforth is the hub of the production as the Attendant , around which the dialogue and action rotates, and is solid and dependable. There is very little action in this play. Only the Council’s proposal to shut the baths down offers any narrative progression. In the face of a fairly static setting ,the cast approach the production with brio and enthusiasm, demonstrating obvious affection for the parts which they are playing.
As an “Everywoman” play, the writing probably falls a little short, but as an entertaining and warm evening out Ian Dickens’ direction thoroughly entertained an appreciative audience. A short address to the audience at the end by Rebecca Wheatley was a nice touch. Steaming runs at the Wolverhampton Grand theatre from Tuesday 2nd – Saturday 6th July, and then again at the Grand Theatre Swansea from Wednesday 31st July – Saturday 3rd August.