King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 11 November 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Tony Roper’s play about women in a 1950s public washhouse on Hogmanay has proved a bona fide modern classic, and is now on a 30th anniversary tour produced by Neil Laidlaw and Jason Haigh-Ellery. Frighteningly, this means the first performance is now nearly as far in the past as the play’s setting was at its premiere.
The world it portrays has vanished, but Roper’s slightly rose-tinted view of a community whose solidarity has long since disappeared into labour-saving appliances, social atomisation and zero-hours contracts is an enduringly popular one.
The reminders of how much harder – not least physically – a great deal of life was then do not ever quite keep the sentimentality at bay, but a beautifully structured piece of theatre and some top-class comedy set pieces manage to forestall most of the criticism.
Roper himself directs this tour, which has assembled a cast at least the equal of any seen since the original Wildcat company. Throughout, the comic acting is impeccable, with Mary McCusker’s Mrs Culfeathers a particular joy. It is abundantly clear how much the audience are waiting for her ‘Galloway’s mince’ routine, and she does not disappoint, making it sound fresher than ever.
Libby McArthur, as the gossipy Dolly who is somewhat at an angle to reality, turns in a similarly accomplished comic performance, with her seizing of an imaginary telephone a piece of timing for the ages. Steven McNicoll’s patter-merchant handyman Andy, meanwhile, features some bravura drunk acting and beautiful falling over.
Indeed, if there is a criticism that could be levelled at this production, it is that the comedy is so smart and glossy, and Roper’s attention to the timing of the laughs is so crisp, that some of the pathos is lost. Carmen Pieraccini does bring a vulnerable brittleness to Margrit, raging against her drunken husband, but the humorous togetherness does seem almost overwhelming, with Andy more of a cuddly figure of fun rather than a symbol of the outside male world.
The bittersweet feeling comes largely from Doreen, the youngest character, whose wistful yearnings for a television in Drumchapel are as poignant as ever. Fiona Wood gives the character a genuine sadness, as well as having a particularly outstanding voice.
As so often, it is Dave Anderson’s songs that give the play much of its emotional heart. It is accordingly unfortunate that a couple of them seem to have gone missing, with the result that it is surprising when music does turn up. The second half, in particular, comes across as unbalanced.
In the end, however, the sheer attention to detail (exemplified by Kenny Miller’s mighty set), the sheer comic talent and huge heart of the production win through, providing an anniversary celebration that is hugely satisfying.