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Review: The Full Monty at Liverpool Empire ****

Who could have envisaged back in the summer of 1997 that a modestly-budgeted British indie film about a group of unemployed Sheffield steelworkers would have such an impact – or indeed such longevity?

Yet more than a quarter of a century after down on their luck Gaz, Dave, Lomper et al first took off their kit (and regained their dignity in the process), The Full Monty has become a much-loved part of our cultural landscape.

And there’s a reason for that which goes beyond the sight of a bunch of hapless, everyday blokes ‘tekkin off’ their clothes on stage.

Because Simon Beaufoy’s resonantly poignant (and at the same time often painfully funny) story speaks of the impact of traditional industry in decline, of the toll this takes on relationships and families, and of men’s mental health and how they deal with the loss of hope and self-esteem.

It’s a resonance keenly felt in any community which has suffered a similar fate.

Saying all that, there is of course the revealing of flesh, and while it may have been a cold and snowy January evening outside the theatre’s doors on the opening night of this latest touring production, the atmosphere inside the Empire’s packed auditorium was warm with, let’s just call it anticipation for the sight of Sheffield’s ‘buns of steel’.

It also resounded to the sound of polite but firm warnings that anyone trying to take photos of, or film, the cast during the show (but one assumes particularly during its finale) would be ejected, with the ‘possibility of legal action’.

Happily, while there was definitely some warm vocal appreciation from the audience, I didn’t spot anyone being actively collared and marched out.

Above: Neil Hurst as Dave and Danny Hatchard as Gaz. Top: 'Buns of Steel' prepare to go the full monty. Photos by Ellie Kurttz

Back on stage, Danny Hatchard and Neil Hurst form a likeable and very watchable partnership as desperate dad Gaz and best mate Dave whose mute melancholy, fuelled by loss of work and purpose, manifests itself in comfort eating.

And there’s also plenty of pleasure to be had watching them slowly gather the group of disparate ‘dancers’ around them, from Nicholas Prasad’s sweetly hopeless Lomper to Bill Ward’s spiky ex-foreman Gerald, Ben Onwukwe’s arthritic, booty-shaking Horse and Oliver Joseph Brooke (standing in for an absent Jake Quickenden) as the seemingly cocky Guy.

Mention must also go to Rowan Poulton, the expressive young actor playing Gaz’s son Nathan on press night and more than holding his own amid a more experienced adult cast.

If some of Beaufoy’s characters tend to be fleshed out more than others, together the actors weave a compelling narrative that’s both bittersweet and life-affirming. Yes, they play up the laughs but at the same time you’re keenly aware of the desperation lying just beneath the surface.

Above: Hot stuff. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.

And while the spotlight shines on the six leading male characters, Katy Dean also gives a sympathetic and layered performance as Dave’s wife Jean – there’s a palpable ache at the heart of her scenes with Hurst.

Beaufoy’s stage adaptation stays mostly faithful to his own film script, albeit with few location tweaks along the way.

Among the most anticipated set-piece scenes, Gerald’s disastrous job interview is masterfully and hilariously executed, although when it arrives the famous ‘hot stuff’ signing on sequence actually feels a little bit undersold.

Standing against a backdrop of the Sheffield skyline, designer Jasmine Swan’s versatile set comprises three stark metal structures which are constantly manipulated and choreographed into a series of formations (by both crew and a hands-on) to create and echo the steel city’s declining industrial and social landscape.

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