Nell Dunn's play about closing a Russian bath is, uniquely,
performed in Harrogate's Victorian Turkish baths—still very much open.

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

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Review of an unique performance

Dress code: very light clothing, trainers or preferably bare feet. Not the usual theatre then. No, actually the wonderful Victorian Turkish Bath at Harrogate.

Nell Dunn's Steaming was brilliantly performed there in front of 50 lightly clad people. The cast was even more lightly clad. Verisimilitude taken to the limit, full nudity for the liberated heroine, and eventually for the mentally disturbed bather. The middle-class audience, of a certain age, loved it.

Class was the keynote. The play did start to show its age, written in the 60s, not only through the emphasis on the class and therefore the education, wealth and expectations of the group of women who visit the bath—actually a Russian rather than a Turkish bath, viz, the title and references to a good steam throughout—for unwinding, a bit of company and a good gossip, but also because the council wanted to put a public library in its place and thus shatter the social lives of the little group of women.

In the 2000s, it is ethnicity that is more likely to shear a group apart and never, never would a modern council think to put up a public library. They don’t actually exist now, they are called Ideas Palaces or some such tripe. Anyway, the fundamental themes of the play remain valid. Lots of people are still poor, and certainly teenage pregnancies abound, and above all, no democratically elected town council takes any more notice of their council tax payers now than they did of their ratepayers in the past.

But the venue. By some miracle, director Hannah Chissick managed to get her players performing uninhibitedly in cramped spaces with the audience on benches or on the floor sometimes only inches away from the bare skins which made for intense, visceral, emotional impact. Careful mock-ups for rehearsals apparently.

Having never seen the play on a normal stage, it is difficult to say just what difference having the performance in a Turkish Bath made. It seemed to me to help the suspension of disbelief no end. In fact, I was totally taken in by the baths attendant who showed us to our seats before the play started—and who turned out to be the actress (Kate Rutter) who played the baths attendant…

Well, the women lost. But they also found themselves. The baths were closed in spite of the campaign planned by Jane, the already partly independent mature student (Victoria Carling). In the heat and closeness, the slatternly but dynamic heroine (Josie Walker) is empowered, the meek deserted wife (Gaynor Barrett) finds herself, the mentally disturbed Dawn (Lorraine Cheshire) gets liberated from her loving but over-protecting mother (Judy Wilson). And the only man is a voice off. Great.

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2020

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