by Nell Dunn
Colne Dramatic Society
Designed & Directed by John Mills
For those who remember, the 1970s was a time of upheaval and change, of politics and protest, as well as the decade that fashion (supposedly) forgot. From that chaos came many new cutting-edge writers and plays – and Colne Dramatic Society’s latest offering, “Steaming” by Nell Dunn, is one of those works.
“Steaming” is a study of the lives and relationships of a group of six very disparate ladies who come together once a week at a local Turkish Bath. Here they share their dreams and disappointments while lounging in their favourite Council-run plunge pools, spas, showers and personal treatment rooms.
But their comfort and security are shattered when it is announced that the Baths are to be closed in six weeks’ time – news which calls the group to arms and changes each and every one of them forever.
This production successfully brought to the Little Theatre stage not only the flavour of the 1970s but a stunning set giving us all the faded grandeur of a Victorian Bathhouse. A projection of such a building on the stage screen set the tone beautifully and to one side, some clever lighting gave a reflection of water on the wall, coming from the ‘plunge pool’ on the stage apron.
And when the screen went up, the set did not disappoint. On a tiny 15-foot wide space Director/Designer, John Mills had created a stunningly accurate period treatment room, complete with six entrances, a staircase, stained glass window and ornate Eastern cut door frames. Indeed, overall, the technical side of the production was outstanding, most especially in the set, and also the costumes and some very subtle lighting changes.
We firstly meet Violet, Manager of the spa for 18 years. In this difficult linchpin role, Marilyn McGinty - last seen at CDS in the Farndale Christmas Carol - was assured and gave a strong performance.
The first regular to arrive is Josie – a loud mouthed, sex mad, unemployed skint woman of a certain age who has terrible taste in men, an ex-husband sent to jail, a son who has spent time in borstal and an abusive German boyfriend. When Susan Ellison walked on in this role, the stage lit up – her costumes were superb (I haven’t seen fully sequined hot pants for many a year) and her handling of some very raunchy material was very funny. As her character develops, she blossoms in confidence, even if at the end her wishes are unchanged – “I pray for courage – and a good sex life!” Amazingly this was Susan’s first stage performance and she did herself proud in every way.
In the role of Mrs Meadows and her daughter, Dawn, we had a great double act played by Claire Conboy and Susan Hartley. Claire’s costume, with heavy textured coat, was reminiscent of grannies of yesteryear and she did well to portray an often, unsympathetic character.
Susan Hartley’s portrayal of Dawn, a grown woman with continued educational challenges, and a shady background involving the police and possible abuse, was a beautiful performance, ranging from her long vacant stares, her rebellious moments (which reminded me of Harry Enfield’s, Kevin, the Teenager), and a wonderful skipping scene, to her final rebellion resplendent in scarlet lacy bra and panties! She was another stage newcomer – but again, she shows much promise for the future!
The role of the odd one out, Nancy, was played with great confidence as always by CDS regular, Vivienne Thornber. Seemingly ‘the lucky one’, Nancy slowly reveals she is just as unhappy as the rest. Married to a barrister, after 22 years of formal dinners, magnolias round the windows, and Laura Ashley frocks, her husband has left her! Although initially lost, by the end of the tale she has a plan – “I’m looking for a man. I want to have some sex!” As always Vivienne gave a terrific performance in one of the ‘lower key’ roles of the play.
The final member of the sextet, Jane, made a notable entrance in her ‘hippy’ free-living colourful outfits – she was truly fab’n’groovy and has really lived the free life that others may dream of. But again, not all was as it seemed. “There is something demoralising about being a student living off a grant at 45.” But with the help of her female cohorts she, too, finds a way forward – now all she wants is to find a man – or woman – to make her happy. Corrina Clark, who has most recently been more involved in Garrick productions, was perfect for this role. She moved beautifully on stage, was assured in her delivery and confident in her stage presence. A lovely, colourful, exuberant performance.
This play is unashamedly BY a woman, ABOUT women and FOR women, so it is not surprising that the only male role is small and without much depth. Andy Bell played the part well (this role being played part of the week by David Anthony Cross), and certainly made the most of his big moment at the end of the play when the ladies get their own back on this Little Hitler. We certainly got to see a lot more of him than expected!
Despite the future of the baths being in doubt, the play ends on a high note with Bill running off to hide, Dawn brandishing her new ‘souvenir’ and everyone having a jolly good time to the strains of Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman”
This is a forgotten play, very much of its time, and I can appreciate why it is seldom performed by amateurs.
Nell Dunn’s script is dated – though in these days of cutbacks and austerity perhaps it is right back on trend. But its greatest strength is in the gradual unpeeling of the facades of each of these women, all of whom are unhappy with their lot, but for whom the camaraderie and friendships they find at the baths gives them a chance to see beyond their tiny world, and to consider what MIGHT have been – and indeed what still may be.