Review of Steaming at Ilkley Playhouse

THE great joy of a theatre like Ilkley Playhouse, is the variety it offers in the best tradition of ‘rep’. In the last few weeks audiences have been treated to the moving classic ‘On Golden Pond’ and then to the studio production – ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’. Both plays perfect show cases to ‘amateur’ theatre at its best. Hot on the heels of those great successes is Nell Dunn’s ‘Steaming’ – something completely different and equally compelling.

Set in an East End bath house, Dunn puts together a group of women who have no business sharing the same space. They have little in common in terms of their social background or interests and come at life from opposite angles and yet it is this interplay which make the play so interesting.

The set, designed by David Keighley, is stunning. It incorporates changing rooms, a steam room from which emanates vast clouds of steam, a sauna and a plunge pool, all beautifully lit and painted. It’s not difficult to imagine exactly how this place smells and feels – there is a definite sense of the dampness of the walls and the slippery floor.

Directed by Jay Cundell-Walker, there is a fair amount of Victoria Wood-esque behaviour and characterisation going on here. Running the facility is Violet, played quite hilariously by Rachel Warren; a ‘Mrs.Overall’ type with her shower cap permanently in situ, a badly buttoned overall and a crooked walk. The baths have been her life’s work and she has clearly made the most of her opportunities to hand out advice, friendship and refreshments, along with the towels and soap. Josie (Rachel Conyers) is a larger than life good-time girl, who, for all her boasting of a quite exotic and exhausting sex life, is really seeking the security she’s never had. This is a huge performance, quite out of type and is played courageously and with great aplomb – there is no other way to play it - and this was done really well.

In distinct contrast to this there are the endearing and familiar characters of Mrs Meadows and her daughter Dawn. These two ladies use the bath house to keep warm and to enjoy the comfort and companionship that the place offers. Mrs Meadows is the put-upon, down trodden woman who struggles to look after her autistic daughter and worries about the hole in the roof – but hopes it’ll clear up on its own. Beautifully played by Julia Wilson, one cannot fail to have sympathy for the hand life has dealt her. Caroline Marston is ponderous and yet powerful as Dawn – and one wonders exactly what has happened between her and the police…?

Out of step with these characters are Nancy and Jane, two ‘yummy-mummys’ who seem to view this bathing refuge as an opportunity to enjoy a little shabby–chic and in the process to make acquaintance with the more colourful side of their adopted borough. Through them you see the potential dangers and strengths that creating diverse communities inspire.

There are troubles ahead and the women join forces to face them and suddenly where there was discord, is harmony. This is a fascinating glimpse into our ever evolving society, funny, witty and ultimately thought provoking. It runs until the 15th June.

by Becky Carter