Laughter, pathos and bathos at the bathhouse.
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 . Sutton Arts publicity promised “ some nudity and strong language” , a device guaranteed to sell a few extra seats on a well attended opening night. By coincidence the theatre itself once housed Sutton Coldfield’s real baths- you can’t beat that for a sense of place!
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 (Sandra Haynes), a tart with a heart, Josie (Emily Armstrong), a batty old woman ( Denise Phillips) and her dependent daughter Dawn ( Elena Serafinas), a posh bird Nancy (Debbie Loweth) and her bohemian friend Jane (Pippa Zvinis). Bill the caretaker (Dave Douglas) is only occasionally seen and heard.
When it was written, Steaming was groundbreaking in two respects, an almost all female cast, and nudity, the latter pre-dating Calendar Girls. The nudity and bare flesh here is fleeting rather than bawdy, the language occasionally coarse, but always in context. Since it was first performed, the world of the modern woman has been explored by Shirley Valentine and the Vagina Monologues. “Girls night out” productions are much in vogue with numerous new productions too. So the play has a tougher task now than when it was first performed. However Steaming 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 and steam room themselves set offstage, a device which works well. John Islip and his team have created an authentic decrepit bathhouse complete with rusting radiator! 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. When I met director Claire Armstrong Mills she revealed that she had taken on the show not because of a life long love affair with the play, but because she thought she could do something with it. That pragmatic approach is vindicated. She eschews a nostalgia soundtrack for two whimsical Kirsty MacColl songs which, together with non-period dress, reinforces the production’s efforts to be contemporary .
Emily Armstrong shines as Josie – sexy, down on her luck, but with a defiant energy and optimism to burn. Funny, strident and vulnerable, she also delivers much more than a gorgeous figure. There is a moment in the first half when she is describing her struggle to survive, her voice dips and falters, and in that moment, she carries the entire audience with her. The danger in any production of Steaming is that the part of Josie flattens everyone else. But here Armstrong Mills cleverly develops the mother and daughter characters into a comedy duo to great effect. Denise Phillips is a delight as the grumpy old woman, but the best acting of the night in realising a tricky role comes from Elena Serafinas as the probably autistic daughter. Serefinas portrays her not so much as a down trodden victim, but as a character with more natural joie de vivre than any of the others, unsentimental, authentic and engaging.
Debbie Loweth neatly unfolds the repressed character of Nancy, at first the opposite of Josie, then discovering their similarities, whilst her friendship with Jane works as another convincing double act, Pippa Zvinis performing her underwritten part with gusto.
Sandra Haynes is the hub of the production as the Attendant , around which the dialogue and action rotates, and happily understates her performance whilst delivering the funniest line of the night. In response to Josies’ desire not to be remembered for simply being a “good shag”, she replies that some women can’t even manage that! 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, and enjoying doing so.
An appreciative audience basked in the glow of a cast which radiated warmth , and was tantalised by the aroma of a real Indian takeaway ordered onstage! A well staged revival, come and see this show in its run till Saturday 29th March.