Brian Beacom

GENERATIONS of audiences still can’t get enough of The Steamie.

This Fifties-set theatre tale of the ladies who prammed their weeks’ load into the tiled Glasgow washhouses, four women washing their bedsheets and everyday concerns clean, still delights.

The musical theatre classic is now celebrating an incredible 30th anniversary tour and is Scotland’s most successful theatre play.

Yet, the hundreds of thousands who have seen Tony Roper’s Hogmanay-set play have no idea how it went through the ringer numerous times before becoming a success story.

Tony Roper, who would go on to star as Jamesie in Rab C. Nesbitt, had his play rejected by ever theatre boss in Scotland.

And as a result, it lay in in drawer gathering stoor for four long years.

How it finally came to be performed, and become a runaway hit is down to incredible luck - and the smell of the arts council grant - which was way more powerful than green Fairy.

Tony reveals it wasn’t the desire to produce art, or even come up with a play, but the lure of arts funding which led him to write his piece in the first place.

“I’d heard the Arts Council were offering a grant for a community play and I thought I’d have a go,” he recalls of his days as a writing virgin.

“I wrote it in ten days, on paper, and with a biro - if I’d had the brain I’d have used pencil that could be rubbed out – but it was all done that quick.”

But the play was rejected by every theatre boss in the land. They said it had no discernible plot (which was in fact the case; it was essentially about women in headscarves and curlers blethering.)

“When all the theatre companies rejected it I abandoned the idea,” says Tony.

“No one, possibly including me, thought this piece would last for two hours on stage. I never expected to hear anything again.”

Then fate played a hand. Fast forward four years and the writer found himself working with Elaine C. Smith on BBC Scotland’s Naked Video.

Clearly, he hadn’t scrubbed The Steamie idea from his mind completely because he asked her to read the script.

“I loved it,” says Elaine. “Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think it was the hit of the century. But I did think it was both funny and poignant and had great roles for women.”

Yet, she felt it to be overly sentimental. To get round this, Elaine came up with the idea of adding songs, which would let the play comment on itself, take away some of the soft soap.

As luck would have it, Wildcat, were looking for a play about community life to put on. And again, grant money was available for a slice of working class life.

Elaine then asked Anderson to write the songs, which he was delighted to do.

But who to cast? The play screamed out for four great performers, who could also sing. And director Alex Norton, Elaine and Tony found them in the form of Katy Murphy, Dorothy Paul and Ida Schuster. “The song Dreams Come True was about Doreen’s dream of the new house in Drumchapel. And Katy Murphy’s Disney-like soprano voice really lent itself to the tune. She sang like Snow White.”

Variety star Dorothy Paul was perfect for the role of tenement goddess Magrit. “I thought the Scout halls would be packed out, thanks to this star,” says Alex Norton.

The cast complete, Alex knew his budget would be tighter than a wet washing line on a dry weekend.

But he came up with a masterful idea. “I had worked on an adaptation of Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay Won’t Pay and the director had used cartoonist Malky McCormack for the set design, and it was wonderful. So I called Malky and he was very interested in creating a cartoonish set, whereby the sinks were drawn, with cartoon bubbles above them.”

During rehearsals however, there were signs the play would fold as quickly as the cardboard sets.

Alex would go on to play Napoleon twice in his film career but it seems during the Steamie he was already inhabiting the role.

He admits he was more than a little demanding of his cast, telling them to do better, to the point of snot and tears.

“There was some of that,” says Dorothy Paul, smiling. “But we all needed pushing. And it worked because during the great rehearsal performances I began to think the play had a chance.”

Yet, despite rehearsal indicators the play was scrubbing up nicely, Tony wasn’t yet convinced his play was funny.

“I had no great hopes for it all, other than I would now get the second half of my commission. But I thought to myself ‘At least the music is great’.”

The cast battered into shape, the set glued and taped together, the play opened at the Crawford Theatre, part of Jordanhill College. – and everyone connected with the show was taken aback at the reaction.

“I suddenly realised the laughs were huge, especially the Mince story, which would later run for 18 minutes,” says Tony. “But my overwhelming feeling was a sense of relief.

“It was only next day I allowed a smile when the Wildcat secretary called me up and told me the phone was ringing off the hook with people looking to buy tickets.”

Tony Roper’s play had taken the roof off. It had standing ovations in the likes of Easterhouse, it was standing room only in Drumchapel. It would go on to be performed across the world, even translated Finnish.

Television now lifted a curious head. But was Roper not concerned he would kill off his play, by letting it go out on the box? “Yes, I did worry about that. And more.”

Both the BBC and STV wanted to make The Steamie but Tony went with STV, who offered lots more money, and the chance to adapt the play for television.

But he reveals he turned down the chance to turn The Steamie into a sitcom, in the way The Odd Couple had transferred onto television.

“I didn’t think it would be believable. I didn’t think we’d have the same people turn up at the same steamie stalls every week.

“And I knew I had something well-loved on my hands. Plus, I was acting fairly constantly at the time, and to write a series would have meant some of that time being sacrificed.”

He adds; “Having said all that, I think if I’d been a proper writer I’d have said yes.”

The Steamie moved from the community halls onto the major theatre stages.

Alex Norton had certainly captured the essence of the steamie world. The play proved to be a slice of Scotland’s socio-economic history, a steamed-up window into a world about to change for ever.

“It’s a play about community,” he maintains. “About loss. It’s a metaphor for the city itself, about the buildings being pulled down.”

Tony Roper doesn’t agree. He thinks it’s a “nice wee play with good songs.” But no message. “Maybe I’m too close to it,” he says, grinning.

“I was a jobbing actor who just wrote it to get some grant money.”

*The Steamie, the King’s Theatre Glasgow, October 23 – November 4.