The Full Monty: Theater Review

Hugo Glendinning
"The Full Monty"
This new stage adaptation of the bittersweet Fox Searchlight film is uneven, but hard not to like.

Adapting his screenplay for the 1997 Brit hit, Simon Beaufoy has reworked the blue-collar stripper story into a crowd-pleasing stage play, unrelated to the Americanized musical.

LONDON -- After opening successfully on home turf in Yorkshire and touring the regions, the Sheffield Theatres production of The Full Monty hits the West End with a crowd-pleasing blaze -- quite literally so, given the final flare of lighting that wallops home the full-frontal climax. It’s a clever bit of stagecraft which echoes the freeze-frame conclusion to the 1997 Fox Searchlight film on which this is based. And like the movie, this new version of the material is very hard not to like, even if Simon Beaufoy’s adaptation of his own screenplay is still squishy with sentimentality under the surface grit, and the performances, like some of the cast’s Yorkshire accents, are a bit uneven.

None of that is likely to matter much to most London audiences, who will exit the Noel Coward Theatre humming Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” and feeling good about stripping -- as long as it’s done by lovable unemployed no-hopers.

On no account is this iteration to be confused with the musical The Full Monty, an Americanized version of the story set in Buffalo, NY, with a book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). That show opened on Broadway in 2000 and ran almost two years, though did less well in the U.K. It would be no surprise if this version of the story ends up far outstripping the musical in popularity.

With Yorkshire-man Beaufoy on board as playwright along with director Daniel Evans, who’s also Sheffield Theatres’ artistic director, the action is replanted once again in Sheffield, the iron-ore-rich native soil of the original film. It’s a region particularly well-regarded by Brits for the legendary warmth of its people with their euphonious accents and quaint expressions. (“Chuffing Nora!” exclaims someone at one point, cueing peals of indulgent laughter from the audience.) The affectionate regard for the area might partly explain the remarkable appeal of director Peter Cattaneo’s film, a hit that’s still in the top-ten list of the most successful British movies ever made.

Like the film, the play is set in 1988, a moment when Thatcherism was at its most triumphant and the city at one of its lowest ebbs on the back of mass layoffs from shuttering steelworks. Early publicity has made much of the story’s relevance to the hard times of today, although the chunky PC monitors that dress the set, the female castmembers’ big hairdos, and the amount of Thatcher-hating (at one point a bust of her gets spat on) make this feel even more like a period piece than the 1997 film. Perhaps the most telling period detail is the fact that the unemployed men around whom the comedy-drama revolves would rather stay on the dole (Brit-speak for welfare), turn to crime or, indeed, strip than do any menial job they consider beneath their skill-sets.    

The story’s hero, Gary (Kenny Doughty), is first met while stealing a steel girder from his former workplace, accompanied by his 10-year-old son, Nathan (Jack Hollington), and Gary’s best friend, former crane-operator Dave (Roger Morlidge). The scam goes awry, but on the way home they find their local pub has a ladies-only door policy for the night, with a male-strip show that’s driving the crowd wild and minting a fortune. This sets Gary, who needs to raise a considerable sum in overdue maintenance payments to his ex-wife, Mandy (Caroline Carver), thinking.

Before you can say “leather codpiece” he and Dave are assembling a dance troupe of sad-sack men for a one-off performance at which they promise to reveal all, hence the title. The others agreeing to go along for the ride include older, more-middle-class Gerald (Simon Rouse); fey suicidal security guard Lomper (Craig Gazey); out-and-proud builder Guy (Kieran O’Brien); and transplanted Cockney Northern-Soul fan Horse (Sidney Cole).  

In other words, the story is virtually the same as the original film, likewise the mix of humor and melancholia, and even the song choices. (And yes, they’ve kept in that scene in the dole queue set to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.”) Much of the dialogue has also been recycled, although with a little less swearing than the first time around, perhaps to make it more palatable for family audiences.

Nevertheless, some things have been tweaked. This time, perhaps with a different target demographic in mind, the relationship between Lomper and Guy has been expanded, giving them a sensitively performed new, extended scene where they talk about gay identity and love. Gazey’s comic timing is fine-tuned throughout, while O’Brien (who went full-frontal onscreen for Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs) has a personable stage presence -- cocky (in every sense), a little vulnerable, but irrepressibly at ease with himself.

Together, they somewhat upstage the other key players, especially the disappointing Doughty, whose shouty alpha male isn’t a patch on Robert Carlyle’s densely layered Gary in the movie. In fact, several other supporting players, such as the charismatic Rachel Lumberg as the salty Jean, shine so bright one wishes Beaufoy had written more new material for them. Given that this is the same cast from the Sheffield Lyceum production it's surprising some of the performances aren't in sharper focus.

The inherent limitations of a stage mean much less action takes place outdoors, so the city itself naturally can’t operate as a supporting character here as it does onscreen. Making that limitation a virtue, Robert Jones’ intricate, decrepit steelworks box dominates the stage all the way through, the upper parts visible even in scenes taking place elsewhere, as if it were a malevolent castle from which no one can escape.

Ingenious use is made of a crane for the last, climactic strip, which is lustily choreographed by movement-man-of-the-moment Steven Hoggett (The Glass Menagerie, Once, Let the Right One In), bringing things full circle in a satisfying way. Perhaps that crane symbolizes Sheffield’s transition from an industrial to a post-industrial service economy, although Gary and his mates would probably have no truck with such egghead notions.

Venue: Noel Coward Theatre, London (runs through June 14)

Cast: Kenny Doughty, Roger Morlidge, Craig Gazey, Rachel Lumberg, Simon Rouse, Sidney Cole, Kieran O’Brien, Caroline Carver

Director: Daniel Evans

Playwright: Simon Beaufoy, based on his screenplay for the Fox Searchlight Pictures film

Set designer: Robert Jones

Lighting designer: Tim Lutkin

Sound designers: Ben and Max Ringham

Music: Steve Parry with Ben and Max Ringham

Choreographer: Steven Hoggett

Presented by Sheffield Theatres, Sheffield City Council, Arts Council of England