In the interview accompanying the programme for the play, writer Simon Beaufoy notes that it is somewhat disconcerting that The Full Monty, his first screenplay to be produced as a film and now coming back in this new incarnation for the stage, tends to be described as a ‘feelgood’ story, considering that it addresses dark, difficult, and challenging themes including poverty, job loss, desperation, and even suicide. He is not wrong: ‘feelgood’ is definitely an inadequate term to address a work that is capable of a bitter, dark sense of humour, whose characters go through some heavy experiences, and which presents, in many ways, only a partial resolution by the end. The main struggles in the plot are far from satisfyingly solved by the time the last scene is over, and while the characters undoubtedly come out empowered, their struggle is far from finished, nor any guarantee is given that their situation will truly improve.
This is partly because The Full Monty has no interest in being a redemption tale: the empowerment here is the truly important part, the culmination of the arc these characters are going through. Whether Gaz, played by a charismatic and heavily accented Gary Lucy, will win his child custody battle, or Dave (Kai Owen, arguably the best on stage) and Jean (Liz Carney, standing out among the female cast) will manage to eventually have a child, or Gerald (a charming Andrew Dunn) will reconcile with his wife, is not the main point here; while not irrelevant, these plots are part of the life texture of the characters, but not the defining turning point the show is pursuing. What matters here is the empowerment for itself, and it is truly, entirely a class issue. The tale that is being told is that of working class men who have been deprived of what gave them pride, self-confidence, and a sense of self-worth, trying to pursue what they have lost through the most unlikely of avenues. For this reason, Beaufoy is also right in arguing that the political and historical context of the Thatcher years had to be kept, that the time setting of the play could not be changed – and yet in its choice not to actualise its time setting the play is strongly relevant to the lives of working class people today.
But The Full Monty is of course also a comedy, and as a comedy it has no shortage of loud, boisterous, and cheeky moments. There are a few scenes, starting from the very beginning, that rely on a chain of rapid-fire jokes that are delivered by the cast with confidence and wit. The whole cast has excellent chemistry and builds it gradually in order to release it at full power in the final scene. If the ending feels abrupt, it is through a specific narrative choice. I was pleasantly surprised at how well this script translated to the stage; the show turned out both faithful to the original and comfortable in the space of the theatre. The audience was engaged by the visual, by the endearing familiarity of the performances, and by the occasional deliberate breaking of the fourth wall. The sense of humour was probably at its most effective precisely in the darkest moments; there are some common misconceptions surrounding dark humour in popular culture these days, and it was refreshing to see a play that understands that, while no topic is off limits for comedy, the secret lies in laughing at the surreal strain of the situation portrayed, never at the suffering of its characters. The humour here, even at its roughest, is cutting but sympathetic, and in this sense a successful comedic effort.
It is a more lighthearted serving, perhaps, a good show for an easy night out; but on the other hand it is also important to rediscover the ability to make light of things that may be all too familiar for many of us, and about which it may be very difficult to crack a laugh. The Full Monty made its audience laugh at all of that; perhaps it is all the success it needs.