A film about a group of Sheffield steel workers who end up stripping in a local social club doesn’t exactly scream box office smash but that’s exactly the tag that The Full Monty earned for itself back in 1997.
Fast forward a rather frightening 17 years since women of a certain age hit the pause button for repeat glances at Robert Carlyle’s torso and the story has been transformed into a hit stage show which arrived in Tyneside to a capacity crowd at the Theatre Royal Newcastle on Monday night.
Now if ever a film soundtrack was crying out for a big stage opportunity it’s The Full Monty’s.
That unforgettable hip thrusting Job Centre scene from the film ensured we’d never listen to Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff quite in the same way ever again and the disco stomper made the cut for the musical along with other jukebox classics like Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing and Tom Jones’ You Can Leave Your Hat On.
But anyone that was expecting the cast to belt them out would have been sorely disappointed; instead the soundtrack was just a welcome accessory to a production that more than held its own without any unnecessary razzle dazzle.
The men tasked with getting their kit off in front of an expectant crowd, who weren’t quite the baying oestrogen filled rabble of a Dreamboys show but excited none the less, were a talented and enthusiastic collective of all ages.
And those who were there for more than to admire a soap star body or two were also treated to some cracking acting performances.
Having had stints in Hollyoaks, Footballers Wives and Eastenders it would be very easy to write Gary Lucy off as just another soap actor but you’d be a fool to do so.
I was rather staggered to learn that this was Lucy’s first leading role on stage as not only did he have the looks and swagger to pull off Gaz, the role made famous by Carlyle in the film, he also had the grit required to give some authenticity and depth to the side plot about access to his son Nathan.
Nathan too was a complex character. A youth who had to do a lot of growing up thanks to his dad’s Jack the Lad style behaviour and the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, it wasn’t a cutesy child part by any stretch of the imagination.
And the young actor who played him on opening night, Raif Clarke, put in a mature performance but one that was also packed with great comic timing.
While the end product of men stripping down to next to nothing was undoubtedly the high point for many of the audience, for me The Full Monty’s real trump card was the heart and character it had both in its script, staging and the performances of its cast.
Unlike the film version, where perhaps the story of Gaz and Nathan’s relationship sidelined other stories, debut stage writer Simon Beaufoy’s script granted them a larger slice of the action, meaning that Lumper’s depression and struggle with his sexuality, brilliantly acted by Bobby Schofield in the role and Dave’s lack of self esteem and body confidence, prompting a terrific turn on the part of Martin Miller, were just as engaging for the opening night audience.
Gary Lucy wasn’t the only well known face from the small screen- one time Coronation Street actor Rupert Hill oozed confidence as the self assured Guy; former Brookside resident Louis Emmerick was thoroughly entertaining as Horse and Dinnerladies star Andrew Dunn shone in the role of Gerald, one made famous by Tom Wilkinson on the big screen in 1997.
The male cast might be the poster boys for the show but its females didn’t let the side down either, particularly Liz Carney and Jo Mousley in the roles of put upon wives Jean and Mandy.
When the moment the show gets its title from finally came it didn’t feel gratuitous, rather a chance for the audience to offer encouragement and yes, also a few obligatory whoops and wolf whistles, to the characters they’d taken to their hearts.
The Full Monty is a show of two fine debuts- Simon Beaufoy’s stage writing and Gary Lucy’s stage career.
Neither could have hoped to make much better of a first impression.
*The Full Monty is on at the Theatre Royal until Saturday