Most movies are regenerated on stage for one reason alone: No matter how unwieldy the material, familiarity breeds box-office contentment. But there’s a solidly theatrical reasoning behind staging the 1997 runaway screen hit “The Full Monty.” Playing a live audience makes complete sense in a story about six unemployed steelworkers who, in desperation, decide to make a fast buck by stripping buck naked… in front of a live audience. Following its SRO tour, Daniel Evans’ Sheffield Theaters production of a new stage version — a play, not the 2005 Broadway tuner — arrives in town with palpable anticipation gluing audiences to the action. It’s got “hit” written all over it.
Original screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) has fashioned a script which, for the most part, chooses not to pile on additional layers of sentimentality, a temptation unresisted by the more cloying American musical version whose London run shuttered a little more than six months after opening.
The tone of this well-honed production is immediately established by designer Robert Jones. His powerfully convincing set of a giant, majestic but disused factory is given a pall of sadness by Tim Lutkin’s subtle lighting. But as Gaz (Kenny Doughty) and Dave break in to steal some metal to sell, the open back doors reveal a vista of twinkling lights of the North of England town of Sheffield in 1988. It’s a perfect indication of what’s to come: a glimmer of hope in a dark place of sudden high unemployment thanks to the battering of industry by Margaret Thatcher’s government.
One of the most impressive things about Evans’ production is its sense of pace. Given that audiences are clearly arriving with a sense of expectation all about the well-known climax (in which our heroes do their “Full Monty” strip), Beaufoy and Evans immediately set up unexpected theatrical jeopardy. Gaz is caught — to audible gasps at the late preview perf watched — hanging perilously from the beam high above the stage. Not only does this satisfyingly drive the opening expository scene, it neatly alerts everyone to the fact that this is not a mindless retread.
That said, the events of the story cleave largely to the screenplay. Although the men talk of and illustrate their hardships and the indignities they face as they search hopelessly for work while claiming benefit (the UK version of welfare), the politicized savagery beneath the surface of the film has been lost. In its stead, the “feelgood” factor has been amplified, a decision which arguably sacrifices truth for popular appeal.
The character work is nicely evident, not least in the performance of Rachel Lumberg as Jean, wife of slow-witted, overweight Dave (Roger Morlidge) who is overcome by self-doubt. Kieran O’Brien has fun as the well-endowed gay Guy and Simon Rouse does a nice line in controlled pride as the former white-collar man struggling to keep up appearances. But elsewhere, some performances appear to have been blunted by time on the road.
That may account for the too generalized performance by Kenny Doughty as Gaz. Playing the feckless, former jack-the-lad almost pathologically unable to take responsibility for himself or his young son whom he may lose in a battle over unpaid maintenance, Doughty has the range but not the rage. He scores highest for being a convincing ringleader, so convincing that he persuades this bunch of mostly un-fit men to shed their clothes for cash.
Having gathered a real head of steam, the second half truly takes off with the lack of depth cheerfully overridden by the show’s surprisingly successful mix of coarse manners (and, for those who care about such things, language) and unstoppable bigheartedness. That’s thanks in no small part to Steven Hoggett’s witty, cannily characterful movement work which never oversteps the mark by looking too choreographed too soon and hits paydirt with the story’s celebrated payoff, which raises the roof.
Aimed squarely at a predominantly female audience, “The Full Monty” looks like a dead-cert for producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, whose equally female-focused screen-to-stage transfer “Calendar Girls” was a massive West End hit and the UK’s most successful tour ever. “The Full Monty” has to move from its current home after 16 weeks to make way for another show. If another theater can be found, this raucous, cheeky crowdpleaser could run and run.