So, I say to the two (fully clothed) young men sitting before me, what’s it like getting your kit off in front of hundreds of people every night? “Thousands,” they correct me in unison.
Kenny Doughty and Roger Morlidge play two of the leads in The Full Monty, the story of six unemployed Sheffield steelworkers who perform a one-night striptease to raise some cash. Initially a film, transferred to stage it means their final, triumphal act, baring all, is performed live. This requires some nerve: Morlidge likens the feverish atmosphere to “being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum”, while Doughty admits that it was “nerve-racking” at first.
“A guy in the front row last night put his hand over his eyes,” he adds. “But [stripping off] is not gratuitous: it’s completely in the flavour of the play.”
The show started life in Sheffield and is in Bath when we meet, en route to its West End opening. The reception so far has been enthusiastic. Director Daniel Evans reveals that on tour one variant has been “how many knickers get thrown”. There’s a collection backstage, apparently.
But isn’t taking your clothes off a rather dubious way to draw the crowds? Back in London, at the genteel Noël Coward Theatre where the show is heading, I put this to the man responsible: writer Simon Beaufoy.
“There’d be a riot if they didn’t!” he says, genially. “But really the stripping is a Trojan horse. It’s a way of getting people in. But that’s not what you’ve been watching for two hours. You’ve been watching a piece of political theatre.”
The original 1997 film, a low-budget affair of $3.5m, was a huge success, pulling in more than $250m worldwide. Along with Billy Elliot, Brassed Off and The Commitments, it documented the upheaval of the 1980s recession and celebrated resilience in the face of desperation.
“It was a very visible recession,” recalls Beaufoy, who grew up in Yorkshire. “It was a physical knocking down of an old industry and an entire social structure.”
Beaufoy, now in his mid-forties, went on to a highly successful screenwriting career, creating scripts for Slumdog Millionaire, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and 127 Hours among others. But he refused all offers to write Full Monty II – “I was never going to write a sequel where it all went well for them, despite masses of pressure.” Then the most recent recession prompted the idea that, delivered live on stage, the story might speak to a new generation.
“We talked a lot about whether we should update it to now,” he says. “The problems are absolutely the same in terms of that sense of disempowerment, but the type of recession is so different. So we decided to keep it in that era. And where we’ve been touring it, in the industrial cities, it has still felt viscerally relevant.”
Audiences warm to the men’s comic attempts to form a seductive dance act. But behind all the joking lies a Lear-like metaphor. The men’s nakedness symbolises the fundamental challenge that loss of employment poses to masculine identity.
“It’s all about emasculation and how the dignity of a proud group of men was stripped away,” says Beaufoy. “It happened to men all over the country from all the traditional heavy industries.”
The desperation – and defiance – behind the men’s act prevents it from becoming seedy, Beaufoy argues: “What they do is really innocent,” he says. “Weirdly, it’s not sexual. It’s a bravado thing. It’s a metaphor for that lack of dignity, which they turn on its head and say: ‘I am proud to have nothing on: here I am, fat, thin, old – I don’t care.’”
That courage is what audiences end up applauding, although Beaufoy admits that it can be hard work to rein in spectators primed to fling underwear: “It’s important to retain the seriousness. People come in really buzzed up. But if you treat them seriously, they do respond. It’s only as funny as it is, if it is as sad as it is.”
For Beaufoy, the story gains immeasurably from that live engagement. But reworking his screenplay for stage was no breeze.
“I thought I could just plonk the film into the theatre,” he says, with disarming frankness. “I sent the first draft to the producer David Pugh thinking, ‘Well that was easy.’ And he said, ‘That’s marvellous. Can you just put a week aside and we’ll teach you how to write a play?’”
Despite this baptism of fire, Beaufoy is a convert. “[Theatre] is a much better place for writers [than film],” he says. “If you work in the studio system in America, they’ve almost got to the point where a computer programme could write scripts. Effectively they hire and fire enough writers until they get something generic.”
He won’t be cajoled into making films he doesn’t want to. “I’ve turned down all sorts,” he says cheerfully. And it is perhaps significant that his most successful film-scripts to date celebrate people who show remarkable spirit: a man trapped in a canyon severing his own arm; an Indian slum child winning a TV quiz show; a group of unemployed men staging a victorious strip act.
“There’s definitely a sense of hope in them all,” he agrees. “I’m not interested in superheroes. What about normal people doing extraordinary things? That’s the interesting journey to take.”
‘The Full Monty’, Noël Coward Theatre, London, from February 20, fullmontytheplay.com