Gayle Telfer Stevens on The Steamie: 'I identify with those characters; they're so loved and so well known within real life'

Gayle Telfer Stevens on The Steamie: 'I identify with those characters; they're so loved and so well known within real life'

credit: Robin Mitchell

Marking their Steamie debut as Magrit and Dolly, Louise McCarthy and Gayle Telfer Stevens discuss taking on Scotland's best-loved play

The Steamie has come to hold an iconic status within Scottish theatre. Written by Tony Roper, perhaps best known for his role in Rab C Nesbitt, it speaks with compassion and nostalgia for a Glasgow that has disappeared, rich in community spirit and resilience – as well as a sharp wit and banter.

Set in a public washhouse, it follows Hogmanay during the 1950s as the women get their clothes cleaned before midnight, and reflect on their challenges, routines and experiences. While their lives and aspirations are shaped by post-war society, their spirit and sense of resilience is recognisably Glaswegian.

Its continued success – Roper also directs this production, emphasising its continuity with the 1988 premier – is more than just sentimentality. Louise McCarthy, playing Magrit, observes that it draws power from the characters 'that are so recognisable in your own family: you can't help but know a Magrit or a Dolly. They are so relatable and have such colour and warmth that you can't help but fall in love with them.'

Gayle Telfer Stevens (Dolly) agrees. 'My granny was a Dolly. I identify with those characters. They're so loved and so well-known within real life, so it's kind of art imitating life. It's about the mother tongue of your family and those characters that are alive within your family.'

Telfer Stevens and McCarthy have recently completed another successful tour as The Dolls: their casting in this production brings the duo back to the play that inspired them to become actors, and links together two Scottish successes. While The Dolls are a determinedly contemporary duo, there is a further continuity in the kind of characters on the stage.

Telfer Stevens recognises that while the script of The Steamie lacks the 'craziness that comes with The Dolls,' she can see similarities. 'The Dolls are kind of modern day versions of Dolly and Magrit, with a big good modern twist. They're foul-mouthed, a lot more dirtier, murkier and grittier – things that you weren't allowed to be back in the day, and that it's feel-good and it's Scottish as well.

'They also both use humour as a form of escape from their own problems and struggles,' adds McCarthy. 'They are outspoken women who do everything for their families.' But while The Dolls are, as Telfer Stevens notes, 'From beginning to end high octane, high kicks and everything', the atmosphere of The Steamie is calmer, even melancholic, and gentle.

The Steamie has been revived for touring every few years, but this SSE production transplants the script onto a larger stage – with a set that is designed for a single venue, and doesn't need to be easily moveable. It is a testament to the longevity of the script that it is running at the largest Scottish venue – only Still Game has occupied this space in recent years – and an opportunity to see how a Scottish classic retains its warmth, intrigue and humour across the years and on a stadium scale.

SSE Hydro, Fri 27–Tue 31 Dec.

The Steamie

Tony Roper's comedy-drama comes to the SSE Hydro in a production designed specifically for the venue, which follows the lives of 1950s Glasgow women Dolly, Magrit, Doreen and Mrs Culfeathers as they get their washing done before the Hogmanay bells.