16 years ago, an unlikely cultural phenomenon was born. A low-budget, independent film about unemployed steelworkers in Sheffield who turn to stripping suddenly became one of the biggest British films of all time. BAFTAs and Oscars followed, and there was even a Broadway musical produced, though one which saw the story relocated from the North of England to Buffalo, New York, to writer Simon Beaufoy’s evident dismay.
For this timely return, The Full Monty has been brought home to South Yorkshire, in a brand new production also written by Beaufoy. Premiering in Sheffield before embarking on a tour of the country, Daniel Evans directs and the production has the makings of a major hit – indeed, every single performance in Sheffield sold out before a single review was published.
Though this is new version, the mid-80s setting remains, as does the Sheffield backdrop, but the digs at Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government feel perhaps even more relevant as they did over a decade ago, especially in a city which has been so scarred by yet another recession.
But for all its political charge and not inconsiderable anger, what makes The Full Monty such a winning thing is its sense of warmth and heart. The characters are all strongly written. Kenny Doughty has the unenviable task of trying to fill Robert Carlyle’s shoes as Gaz, the everyman figure who first comes up with the idea of stripping off. Doughty brings a cocky yet vulnerable charm to the role, and his warm performance is nicely matched by Roger Morlidge as his best friend Dave, who is struggling with weight issues and marriage problems as well as with unemployment.
There are some fine supporting performances from Kieran O’Brien, who gets to make a show-stopping entrance, and a lovely nuanced turn from Craig Gazey as the suicidal security guard Lomper, who draws the lion’s share of laughs with his winsomely camp delivery.
The city of Sheffield itself is also a character here, as represented by Robet Jones’ impressive design, a dark derelict steel mill, which during the course of the show is transformed into a working men’s club, a Job Centre and the interior of the local Conservative Club; while the location changes the shadow of the steel mill – and all it represents – is ever present.
Despite what some of the more excitable audience members appear to think, The Full Monty is about much more than a gang of men taking their clothes off. Both film and play make incisive comments about class (both in and out of the workplace), homosexuality – the discussion between Guy and Lomper is amongst the play’s most touching moments – and the pride of the working man. It’s this sense of pride which is brilliantly personified in Simon Rouse’s dignified, betrayed Gerald, a man whose job is so central to his sense of himself he can’t even bring himself to tell his own wife that he’s been made redundant.
Evans’ production successfully balances these bleak undercurrents with plenty of feel-good moments. The iconic dance in the Job Centre is still here (and greeted with whoops and cheers), as is Dave and Gaz’s gnome-assisted sabotage of Gerald’s job interview, and the Flashdance tuition sequence. Yet this production does not merely trot through the film’s key scenes, it does much more than that; Evans and Beaufoy have injected a freshness and vitality into their production while still retaining a sense of the familiar.
As with the film, the play builds towards the infamous climatic scene from which it takes its name; in staging this, Evans breaks the fourth wall, turning the entire theatre into a working men’s club, and inviting the audience into the world of the play to cheer on the characters. It would be a spoiler too far to reveal how Evans actually recreates that ‘Full Monty’ moment, but safe to say it’s brilliantly done. Never has a standing ovation felt so well deserved.