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THE FULL MONTY Noel Coward Theatre, WC2

MORE THAN A MOVIE:  SOMETHING SPECIAL FROM SHEFFIELD

The opening is dramatic: a  small gap in the rusty corrugated curtain reveals showers of sparks, a glimpse of steelworks magnificence. It closes, to the soundbite  “The lady’s not for turning”, and the whole frame reopens to reveal the gloomy  magnificence of industrial dereliction,  as Gaz and Dave and the child Nathan make their way into the old mill to nick a girder.   And to create more instant drama by getting their old friend the giant crane (“Margaret the Blue Bitch”)  working, with spectacular unreliability. And we’re hooked too.

That single mill set, fabulously realized by Robert Jones,  looms over every scene – jobcentre, Conservative club, working men’s club, street – as if to affirm the overarching trauma of steel towns in the ‘80s, when the works wound down and stranded men who thought their skilled jobs were for life.     Sometimes, poignantly,  you glimpse the lights of Sheffield beyond and below the far door.

There are always qualms about the West End adapting hit films: wavering confidence drives producers towards  easy ‘bankers’, and in the process can weaken or coarsen them (I can’t be alone in having shuddered at the crass Billy Elliott curtain-call with policemen and miners in tutus).   Here, though, the reverse is true.  Simon Beaufoy rewrites his screenplay for the stage with careful delicacy, and Daniel Evans’ production (down from Sheffield Lyceum)  creates something even  funnier, truer and sadder than the film: as sharp and shining as the city’s steel itself.

Kenny Doughty is a terrific lead as Gaz, amiable jack-the-lad driven by a desperation to keep contact with his son (a splendid,  shared, child role culminating in a bracing bit of ten-year-old sweariness).  Roger Morlidge as fat Dave is intensely touching,  and Craig Gazey ideal as the suicidal, closeted Lomper (he’s champion at  eccentric realism: he was Most Promising Newcomer as Graeme the window-cleaner in Coronation Street).  But all of them are finely, sharply real:  notably Sidney Cole a great mover as Horse, and Simon Rouse a senatorially exasperated Gerald.  Among the smaller but significant women’s roles, Rachel Lumberg is a joy as Dave’s frustrated wife Jean.

The marvel of Beaufoy’s script and Evans’ pacing is the extraordinary surefootedness with which it moves – often within half a line – from dry or hilarious comedy to wrenching pathos.   As a tale of jobless  men putting on a strip show (“All that twizzling-about bollocks” grumps Dave),  it has superb set-pieces and jokes.  Yet without flippancy it embraces the grief of bewildered manhood,  body-shame,  loneliness alleviated by ill-assorted comradeship, and male terror of impotence either sexual, financial or parental.  That it ends in a one-night triumph for “The Bums Of Steel” makes it a fairytale of sorts, but one rooted deep in the reality of survival and wholly recognizable Yorkshire cussedness (I married one..).

And ironically, as the vests fly out across the hooting, clapping stalls, thongs are waved aloft for the full Monty and assorted buttocks gleam under the lights,  I had a sense of having seen something with a spirit unusually and beautifully decent.

box office 0844 482 5141  to 14 June

rating:  five  5 Meece Rating

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