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The Steamie - A Silver Jubilee

At the end of Tony Roper's first week working in Bowhill Colliery, the
Fife mine a few miles from his Cardonald home, the wet behind the ears
teenager was taken by surprise. Roper may have been working beside
women, but they weren't shy about hauling the youngster away from his
workplace, ripping off all of his clothes and smearing him from head to
toe with copious amounts of axle-grease.

“They got me everywhere,” says Roper, who as an actor is associated by
most people as Rab C Nesbitt's sidekick Jamesie Cotter, “and I mean
everywhere.”

It was a rites of passage he never forgot, and while the incident
didn't trickle down into his post World War Two Glasgow wash-house-set
play, The Steamie, the larger than life influence of the women he
depicted is alive and kicking throughout.

“All the women in The Steamie are amalgamations of women I knew growing
up,” Roper says on the eve of directing a twenty-fifth anniversary tour
of a play that has become a contemporary classic, and one of the most
performed plays to come out of Scotland ever. “And there were no
shrinking violets, I tell you. It was a different society then. The
women had had to do an awful lot of manual labour during the war, and
they didn't go back to baking scones after that. They'd be scrubbing
the stairs and everything else. They couldn't relax or go to the pub
like they can now, or they'd be regarded as a fallen woman or
something, so if you don't have an outlet, you have to try and find
one.”

Roper's observations pretty much sum up where The Steamie comes from.
Set on Hogmanay at some point in the 1950s, over one long night four
women find a sense of cross-generational community away from their
men-folk which looks a little bit like sisterhood. It's a simple enough
premise, but the play's common touch goes beyond easy sentimentalism to
tap into something audiences have empathised with worldwide, while the
truncated 1988 TV version came second in a public poll of STV's thirty
best loved shows.

“If I knew what it was that made it work,” Roper admits, “I'd do it a
hundred times over. I've written other plays, and they've all been
successful, but they've never had the affect of The Steamie. For some
reason it clicked with the women who went to see it. Now, if I'm not
being too immodest , I like women, and not the artificial kind we see
in magazines who all say the same things. That’s a manufactured thing,
but the women I know, and the women in The Steamie, they all say what
they think, and they don't hold back. There'd been plays about the male
work-place, like The Bevellers and Willie Rough, nut I don't think
there'd ever been anything written about women in the workplace, and I
don't even think the women the play is about thought of what they were
doing as work.”

For all the plays apparent runaway success story, The Steamie very
nearly never happened at all. While an actor with a solid track record
on stage and screen since the 1970s in the likes of Bill Bryden's play,
Willie Rough, as well as playing alongside the late Rikki Fulton in
seminal TV comedy, Scotch and Wry, Roper had never written a play.
Indeed, according to him, he only did so after “Somebody offered me
money. It's a working class thing. If someone offers me money I'll put
my heart and soul into it, but the person who gave me money the first
time round didn't like it, so I only got half the money.”

For the next four years, Roper hawked his script around every theatre
company in Scotland, but there were no takers. Roper happened to
mention it to actress Elaine C Smith, who he was working with on TV
sketch show, Naked Video. Smith took it to Wildcat, the popular music
theatre company founded by David MacLennan and David Anderson to take
theatre to the people in similar ways to those pioneered by John
McGrath's 7:84 company, which MacLennan had been a founding member of.

“Wildcat had a grant to do a play on communities,” Roper remembers,
“but they didn't have one. So when Elaine C Smith told me this I said
I've got one, but nobody wants to do it.”

The Steamie's opening night on May 1st, 1987 at the Crawford Theatre at
Jordanhill College in Glasgow, however, proved everyone wrong.

“It gave us all a shock,” Roper remembers, “including all the Wildcat
people, the actors and actresses and the director, Alex Norton. Before
we opened, I was thinking, well, I hope it doesn't embarrass people. At
the end of the first night, I thought we'd got away with it. Then in
the morning I got a call from Wildcat to say that their answer-machine
was red-hot. A week and a half in and the whole run was sold out. Then
Wildcat did a bigger tour, and it took off even more. It's lasted this
long, and it'll probably outlive me.”

Now aged 70, and still going strong playing Jamesie Cotter in the
revised Rab C Nesbitt, Roper is philosophical about The Steamie's
protracted success story.

“When you hand somebody something on a page,” he says, “you can't
always envisage how it will come off it, and that's what had happened.
I wrote it, not as a writer, nut as an actor, which is something that
was unheard of at the time. I wrote it as a performance. There's no
great message in the play. It's not anti this or anti that, but,
writing it, as an actor I could see what would get a good reaction, and
it's a very technical exercise to make it work. If one actor stands up
as another sits down, if they get it wrong the whole play'll fall
apart. We don't do an awful lot of laughing in rehearsals.”

Onstage, however, in a play that has worked in countries as diverse as
Finland, where even today a company books the rights for six months of
every year, things are considerably different.

“I think it's a huge laugh,” says Roper. “You don't need to be old
enough to have been to a steamie to get the laughs or to get Dave
Anderson's songs. It's a very warm play, and people cry, because they
can remember their grannies or their mothers who they ignored until it
was too late. The Steamie's in the school syllabus now and everything,
and I'm told by various theatre directors that a lot of younger
actresses do one of the speeches in it a lot, and they're slightly sick
of hearing it.”

This is a wonderful back-handed compliment for the play, as is too
Roper's story of a reaction emanating from a lot closer to home.

“My mother was still alive when I wrote it,” he says, “and when it
became successful, people would ask her if she was related to that Tony
Roper. She would always say no. It wasn't that she was ashamed of me in
any way. She just thought it was being boastful. That was the era she
came from. People wouldn't show off about things like that. It's a
working class thing.”

The Steamie, Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, March 21st-24th, then tours


The Herald, March 6th 2012
ends
 

 

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