AT the midweek matinee, there appeared to be more men on stage than in the audience. It was very much the same febrile atmosphere that greeted the Chippendales on their York Barbican visits.
Outnumbered, dear reader, yes, but ironically The Full Monty is just as much a show for blokes too. Hence the link up with Menfulness, the York mental health charity.
Throughout this week’s run, the Grand Opera House will be collecting donations at bars and kiosk card payment points to provide funds towards urgent counselling for men at crisis point.
Men don’t talk to each other. Not about their problems, neither their own, nor each other’s. Just the football. But they do talk in this play. A lot. Men would benefit from doing it more often.
In the meantime, let’s talk about this terrific touring revival of The Full Monty, the spin-off play that the 1997 film’s scriptwriter, Simon Beaufoy premiered in 2013 in his first work for the stage.
In essence it is another strip off the same block, The Fuller Monty that goes even further, replaying the film’s greatest bits and greatest hits (Hot Chocolate, Donna Summer, Tom Jones finale), but with resonance anew and a political punch to the gut amid the cost-of-living crisis, rising rate of men’s suicides and a Tory government mired in long-reigning powerplays.
Just as was the case in the Sheffield of 1990s’ industrial strife, whose skyline forms the backdrop to Jasmine Swan’s fold-out set design of scaffolding and gauze.
The Republic of South Yorkshire’s steel industry had been knifed in the back, steelworkers stripped of their jobs, their dignity, their future. Men like former prisoner Gaz (Danny Hatchard, from EastEnders and Not Going Out) and his best mate, big Dave (Neil Hurst), who operated the steelworks crane.
The lads are now consigned to the scrapheap, the forlorn job club form-filling, and thieving from the foundry, where they have snuck into as the play opens, looking up at the crane, named Margaret after you know who, once mighty but now dormant in the damp, ever since the factory was shut down.
They will encounter insecure security guard Lomper (Nicholas Prasad), stuck in a dead-end job that he wants to end with a rope around his neck. Next will be Gerald (Bill Ward, from Coronation Street and Emmerdale), the jumped-up foreman with a sideline in dance tuition at the Conservative club and a free-spending wife (in Mrs Thatcher blue suits and stiff blonde hair), who is yet to tell he has lost his job. Six months ago.
On a night out at the Chippendales are Jean (Harrogate Theatre regular Katy Dean), Dave’s long-suffering yet devoted cleaner wife, and Mandy (Laura Matthews), Gaz’s ex-wife, who is threatening to cut off his links with son Nathan (Jack Wisniewski, sharing the role on tour with Cass Dempsey, Theo Hills and Rowan Poulton) as he falls further behind with the maintenance.
Ever the Billy Fisher dreamer, Gaz hits on the fundraising idea of forming a strip act, a Yorkshire fish-and-chips answer to the Chippendales’ T-bone steak, for one night only. Gerald will teach the routines, joined by Gaz, lovable, ever-dieting Dave, offbeat Lomper and who else?
The auditions, always a highlight, bring the first half to a double climax under Michael Gyngell’s perfectly weighted direction. First, step forward, a tad gingerly, Horse (Ben Onwukwe), with his James Brown/Northen Soul moves and dodgy hip.
Next, the moment the matinee hordes had been waiting for: the arrival to whoops and cheers of Jake Quickenden, last seen in York stripping down to his golden hot pants as a hunky cowboy in Footloose at the Theatre Royal. This time, Jake and his fabbadabbadoo abs are playing Guy, although audience members are quick to shout out Jake’s name, demanding rather more than a pound of flesh.
He takes it all in his stride, staying in character, gay, gorgeous but still coming to terms with a lost love, in keeping with Gyngell’s production playing the big tease, but always being true to Beaufoy’s original spirit.
For many, The Full Monty will be familiar, and that familiarity breeds contentment amid the discontent of the lives depicted, played here as if the for the first time.
The bare truths surround impotence, unemployment, loneliness and suicide attempts. You laugh because otherwise you would cry, and sometimes you do both at once, faced by comedy and pathos, mischief and melancholia in tandem, dealing with the stuff of life: resilience, community, fighting back, and love, in whatever form, whatever shape. The Yorkshire of Keith Waterhouse, John Godber, Alan Plater.
This Cheltenham Everyman Theatre and Buxton Opera House touring production delivers the Fullest Monty yet, superbly cast, with spot-on lighting by Andrew Exeter, ace choreography by Ian West, and a soundtrack not only of the film favourites but Pulp, Primal Scream, The Verve and Chumbawamba too.
It feels wrong to pick out performances: Ward, Onwukwe and Prasad all shine, but partnerships are particularly strong in Gyngell’s company. Take your pick: the friendship of Hatchard’s Gaz and Hurst’s Dave (with his echoes of York’s Mark Addy). The bond between Hatchard’s Gaz and Wisniewski as his canny-beyond-his-years son, at once amusing yet deeply moving too.
Or the ups and downs of Hurst’s Dave and Dean’s Jean, so been there, done that. And then there’s Quickenden’s Guy and his appendage, his Monty python, if you like.
Performances: 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: atgtickets.com/york