The Full Monty gets ‘fuller’ in new stage version
Think of The Full Monty and you probably think of Robert Carlyle and the gang getting groovy in the dole queue to the sound of Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff. Or about them getting naked in a nightclub to the sultry rhythms of You Can Leave Your Hat On in the film’s feelgood finale.
Those images are so potent, it’s easy to forget how many serious themes lie beneath the comedy. Far from being a throw-away romp about male strippers, the 1997 movie is a commentary about life at the sharp end of Thatcher’s Britain. Yes, there is the heartwarming story about triumphing in the face of adversity; yes, there are the laughs; but so too is there a sober analysis of unemployment, poverty, depression, sexual equality, impotence, suicide, body image and homosexuality in a post-industrial landscape.
“A strange thing happened to the film,” remembers screenwriter Simon Beaufoy today. “I thought I’d made a political film with some jokes in it and during the editing process, it became a comedy film with some politics in it. It jumped genres.”
It was Beaufoy’s first script to be made into a film and it was a phenomenal hit, taking around £170m worldwide. Ten years later Beaufoy pulled off the trick again with the even more profitable Slumdog Millionaire, though he has yet to figure out the secret of his success. “I wish I knew,” he laughs. “I wouldn’t have spent ten years making films that nobody saw.” Perhaps he has learnt more than he is letting on: his most recent credits include Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 127 Hours and the forthcoming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Right now, however, The Full Monty is holding his attention once more. West End producer David Pugh approached him to write a stage version for Sheffield Theatres and, just as this story of six unemployed steelworkers was his first film, now it has become his first play. “The play feels like a better version of the original,” he says. “I’ve gone back with 15 years’ experience as a writer and fixed a lot of things. I feel it’s a better piece of work than the film because I know what I’m doing now. We’ve boiled down the best of the film.”
The reviews for the show, which is in Aberdeen this week and Edinburgh next, confirm his assessment. “The fact that it’s live gives the story even more punch,” said the Observer. “Uproariously entertaining,” said the Telegraph. The transition to the stage, however, was easier said than done.
Beaufoy realised he had to learn a new set of skills if the story was to work in theatrical terms. Although the famous set-pieces could have been written with the stage in mind, he found himself having to ditch techniques he usually takes for granted. “In film, you can jump forward in time, backward in time, you can play all those games which I’ve done in other films. In Slumdog Millionaire, you’re messing around with time endlessly: flash forwards, flash backwards, into the present. This version of The Full Monty, by contrast, is very naturalistic. It’s a very simple idea – it couldn’t be simpler – which gives you lots of time to examine the more interesting things like who they are and what they’re doing here.”
What he relished most was the chance to return to that late-1980s world of working-class Sheffield. “It’s been wonderful to have another go at it, to explore characters a little more fully,” he says. “I’m so fond of them as characters. They’re almost the first people I ever wrote about, so it’s brilliant revisiting it and making it better. I look back on the film very fondly.
It was born out of a number of people who were all starting out in the film industry and we just did it for all the right reasons. We wanted to tell that story, so it was cast with the right people – not people who would get us Oscar nominations. It was all done in the right way. The story has a sort of innocence that I really like and it was important for me to retain that.”
The production has also allowed him to deal with some unfinished business. In 2000, without his involvement, the film was turned into a stage musical and relocated to the steel-working city of Buffalo, New York. The Broadway show came to the UK a couple of years later. One reviewer called it a “campy, synthetic, showbiz affair”. The mild-mannered Beaufoy can barely contain his rage that it even existed.
“I never even went to see it,” he says. “I never read it. It was the opposite of everything the film was, which was honest and true to the place and the people. God knows what that musical was all about, but it was set in Buffalo and I thought it was an awful, cynical thing to do. It was to make money that they set it in America. The film is not cynical and the people in it are not cynical. It has an innocence about it. Of all the things to do, that was the worst thing they could have done. It was really important to me that it was Sheffield. It was written for a Northern voice and it was written for a specific place at a specific time. It has worked very well all over the world, so there was no need. It was just a commercial decision to set it in America.”
As a result, he is delighted this production directed by Daniel Evans has stuck loyally to the story’s Yorkshire roots and is fielding a cast with strong Sheffield credentials. “The producer was very respectful of all that and I’m really grateful,” he says. “He’s been absolutely committed to doing it the right way. If there was a decision where we could make more money doing it one way or we could do it the right way, we’ve always done it the right way.”
• The Full Monty is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, until 23 March, and Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 25–30 March.