Nell Dunn, writer of groundbreaking '60s hits Up The Junction and Poor Cow, become something of a cause celebre in 1981 with her West End play Steaming, which offered a frank and funny expose of female camaraderie often sans clothes - thanks to the play's setting; a crumbling Turkish bathhouse in London.
If you wanted to know what women were like in private, behind closed doors, reviewers claimed, then Steaming was the eye opening play for you.
But beneath such a determinedly categorising comment lies a play that is authentic, honest, poignant and warmly funny, as we see six strong and varied female characters congregate for their weekly ablutions and pampering, sharing intimate and often sexual stories, their dreams and concerns and, ultimately, offering them the chance to find friendship and shoulders to cry on. It's an easy metaphor, but it is effective - the steam room affords them a naked honesty, releasing them of all facades and inhibitions and allowing them to be themselves, away from society and its prying eyes.
The clientele are a suitably broad canvas, ranging from middle class to working class ladies. The former is represented by Sarah Miles and Vanessa Redgrave appearing as old friends recently reunited, whilst Patti Love, Brenda Bruce and Felicity Dean appear as the latter. Class is immaterial however when clothes are removed and the communal nature of the setting is integral to the piece. When the bathhouse is faced with the inevitable closure notice, making way for a suitably '80s and therefore deeply impersonal leisure centre, we see just how much of a lifeline this weekly visit is for each woman and palpably so. All of the cast equip themselves well, delivering Dunn's eavesdroppingly authenic dialogue with great gusto and relish, but its Patti Love's character who perhaps remains with you. On the surface, she's the chirpy good time girl who can never say no, even when the relationship she is in proves to be extremely abusive, but its clear, we soon see, that she possesses a soul that her skin has the impossible challenge of trying to cover.
If you like faithful stage to screen adaptations then Steaming comes warmly recommended, however if you prefer your films to be more filmic then the chances are this particular experience may leave you cold.
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