IT'S the last chance to see them dance- Vicky Edwards gets the naked truth from the cast of The Full Monty as they bring their final tour to Southampton Mayflower tonight until Saturday

IT may be the last ever tour of this particular production, but it is the story that keeps on giving. Originally an award-winning movie, as a stage play The Full Monty has won both awards and hearts. In fact, such is the show’s popularity that as fast as one tour gets underway, producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers are compelled to map out the next. Few shows can sustain that level of repetition. But then The Full Monty isn’t an ordinary show.

“It is special,” insists Gary Lucy (famous for playing Luke Morgan in Hollyoaks as well as for roles in EastEnders, The Bill, Footballers’ Wives and as a Dancing on Ice winner) who plays Gaz. Having starred in almost every ‘Monty’ tour to date, he knows just how readily people fall for this funny, poignant and bitter-sweet story.

"People really love it. From proper theatregoers in Cambridge to Blackpool hen parties, everyone has an absolute ball. It is a gift of a role for me.”

Louis Emerick, recently on our screens in Coronation Street, concurs. “This is the third tour for me and it really is a special show. It is a great story that still resonates now. They are also a lovely company to work and travel with.”

Telling the story of six out-of-work steelworkers from Sheffield who put on a strip show to raise much-needed cash, the film went on to become one of the most successful British movies of all time. Writer of both the screenplay and the stage script, Simon Beaufoy is also the talent behind The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Slumdog Millionaire. Joe Gill (familiar to Emmerdale viewers as Finn Barton) believes the play’s credibility is key to its success.

“It is my first time on the show [he plays Lomper] but everyone knows how iconic it is and what a culture it has, so they come knowing that they will enjoy it.”

Another ‘Monty’ virgin, James Redmond has done lengthy stints in Hollyoaks and Casualty but has never toured in a stage play before. However, that doesn’t stop him recognising the show’s broad appeal.

“We can all relate to it and it is very moving. The poverty these guys lived in; Maggie Thatcher encouraged them to buy their council houses and then closed the steelworks so they were desperate. It’s a heart-warming story that still feels relevant today. Because half of us voted remain and half voted leave none of us know what the future holds.”

Liz Carney who plays Jean is keen to chip in. “It appeals to men and women of all ages and from all classes. The girls in the play tell their own story, so audiences connect with them too.”

Playing Mandy, Amy Thompson voices her agreement, adding: “And the thing that I find really special is that it gets people coming to the theatre who haven’t been before. “

Well known for roles including Rhys in Torchwood and Pete in Hollyoaks, Kai Owen returns to the role of Dave and admits that he loves the audience reaction.

“They may start shouting at the start, but this isn’t Dream Boys or The Chippendales and as soon as they realise that it is a story they settle down. It is so well written that they get immersed and carried along until the end. Then everyone goes crazy!”

A play that covers a huge range of modern issues – as well as unemployment themes include financial insecurity, mental health, divorce, sexuality and body image – the mix of comedy, pathos, warmth and sadness is perfectly balanced.

And then there are the bums and willies. There’s no way to pussy foot around the subject of the boys getting naked, so I ask outright: Is it absolutely terrifying?

“I’m sure we’ll break Joe and James in gently,” says Louis with a naughty grin, recounting the first day in 2014 when he first had the ‘undress’ rehearsal.

“We had only been rehearsing for three days and we hardly knew each other. But we did it, although we all looked each other firmly in the eye! From then on it was pretty easy. It’s much more of a man’s story in many ways and it is great when you see blokes in the audience.”

“It is done really well on stage, although you do have to trust the lighting technicians, and some venues do have slow-closing curtains,” chuckles Andrew, best known for playing Tony in TV’s Dinnerladies.

Talking of different venues, the tour schedule is so full that it gives me motion sickness just reading it.

“I’ve been on stand-up circuit for nine years and I do like to explore and learn about where I am. I am looking forward to it,” declares James, while Andrew admits that he hates the rigmarole of searching for digs. Joe, nodding his head, chimes in: “It’s my first tour and finding accommodation is more daunting than getting my kit off!”

“I’m not a veteran tourer like Andrew, and it is difficult in the sense that I have three young children and I do like my own bed. That said, it’s great to absorb different towns and cities,” says Louis, explaining that he and Andrew generally share digs, trying to book places that will give them a daily walk into the theatre.

With most venues being return visits there are some that the cast are especially looking forward to revisiting. No pressure, gentle folk of Southampton, but you’ve set the bar high.

“We love Southampton!” exclaims Gary. It is a huge theatre and we fill it, which is just fantastic. Southern audiences are generally a bit more restrained, but in Southampton they are really responsive. Our director Rupert is from there, too.”

The youngest member of company, sixteen-year-old Fraser Kelly is an old hand, having already been in the production previously. Telling me that they have been blessed with some excellent children playing the role of Nathan, the returning cast are unanimous that Fraser has something special. He in turn can’t wait to embark on his first tour without needing to be formally chaperoned. Over the chorus of fond banter and mickey taking, he says:

“I can’t wait to start. It is a privilege working with such great people and great actors.”

Ah, but are they great role models?

“No! He’s our role model” says Kai, as they all collapse into fits of giggles.

This final tour is directed by Rupert Hill. Best known as Coronation Street’s Jamie Baldwin, he is a previous Full Monty cast member – something he feels gives him a distinct advantage.

“It gives me huge insight into the way it works. I don’t need to reinvent the wheel in every scene but there are things that I want to explore. The main thing for me was that all the female characters felt a bit secondary, so I am trying to make the relationship between the couples to be more meaningful and integral to the story.

“I also got the cast to watch the Ken Loach film Raining Stones. It was the film that inspired the Full Monty – they wanted to make a film that Ken Loach characters would watch. I think that’s one of The Full Monty’s strengths and it is unbelievable how relevant that film and our show feels now; payday loans, unemployment and anger at society. But also comedy is what Northerners use to get by. The financial situation the characters find themselves in is desperate, but that mix of comedy and relatability makes the show part story and part party. Ken Loach meets Cabaret! But it is celebratory and it works better on stage because the audience become part of the scene. The guys stripping at the end feels like a defiant gesture and the crowds go wild!”

More laughter from the others as they recall stories of audiences in different towns and cities, but they all agree that it is the most gratifying audience reaction they have ever witnessed.

“I can’t imagine that I will ever experience that kind of response from an audience again. You can actually feel the sound wave hit you and it is wonderful. I really want to earn that and for the audience to buy into the story,” says Rupert.

The last word goes to Gary: “There is no better show on the road. Come along and I’ll prove it to you.”

That sounds like a challenge, Mr Lucy. And one that I am delighted to accept.

©Vicky Edwards