ARTS AND FEATURES — 04 March 2014

Kieran O’Brien in character as Guy

Kieran O’Brien of the West End stage production of The Full Monty talks about the story’s enduring appeal, Thatcher and his Irish roots in a revealing interview with David Hennessy

“The steel workers in Sheffield came to see the show and they were like: ‘Wow, thank you so much. This is our story’,” begins Manchester- Irish actor Kieran O’Brien who plays the role of Guy in The Full Monty, the stage play that has transferred to the  West End after a massively successful British and Irish tour.

Beginning in the deafening cacophony of an active steel mill before throwing its audience into the eery silence after work has finished for good due to the decline of the industry during the Thatcher years, the play’s opening scenes capture the sharp contrast between The Steel City in its heyday and the years that followed when visitors would have reason to wonder why it was so called.

“There are a lot of poignant moments in it the struggles of these guys after the systematic, sado-masochistic decimation of the working classes by Thatcher, as you can tell I’m not a fan. That was one of the reasons I signed up: They were very keen to keep the political elements of it. These guys are at rock bottom and they triumph over adversity. People may remember the film as being incredibly funny and the play is incredibly funny but it’s also incredibly moving.”

The Full Monty follows Gaz and Dave, two desperate men who are degraded by their unexpected unemployment. Although they thought they had jobs for life, they are reduced to interviewing for shelf stacking jobs if they can swallow their pride. When Gaz is threatened with the prospect of not being able to see his son if he doesn’t come up with some money, he decides to form a group of strippers after seeing the packed house attracted by The Chippendales.

“These guys are just doing anything they can, their lives have been ripped away from them and that happened, Craig Gazey‘s character Lomper, and this is also in the film, goes and sits in his car because he’s lost his job- That actually happened. Simon Beaufoy (writer) was telling me that was a guy he spoke to in Sheffield and that was what happened to him so it is a powerful story. We talk about if the reaction will be the same as in the regions coming into the West End or the northern cities and I just said: ‘This is a story about people and we’re presenting it to people. The reaction won’t be any different and last night proved to be so’.”

A scene from the 1997 film

The film and play both also depict the character of Gerald who is so ashamed of his new circumstances that he can’t tell his wife of his unemployment and so she continues to spend and create more and more debt. This is also based in fact.

The most commonly used phrase around the time of Margaret Thatcher’s death in April last year was that she divided opinion. The play was in Dublin when the news broke and all of a sudden, the play’s harsh words about Britain’s former leader seemed disrespectful to the dead. It was considered changing lines in reaction but Kieran said he would not go on if this happened.  Not only did he go on but he brought an Irish tricolour on in triumph for the curtain call.

“Being a Northern working class lad, I remember all that. She had an almost psychopathic hatred of the working classes and this country never recovered. That was something about going on tour, once you go out of any of the city centres I’m talking about, 10 minute car journey, you can see the destruction people are still living with: shops boarded up all over the place, hordes of lads running around not knowing what to do with themselves… and you can trace it right back to her. Doing this play, its message about what government did to the masses really is something I absolutely hold onto.”

With Britain just coming out of another recession, it’s a story many can relate to presently: “This story is contemporary, it’s happening all over the place and again this is why I didn’t have any concerns about it transferring. We’re not there to bang any drums, we’re just there to tell the story but the story was born out of the struggle.

“I don’t want to sound like it’s a very heavy piece but there’s certainly some very important issues that the play deals with so you leave with a massive smile on your face, uplifted because these lads have done it, but you think about it a hell of a lot afterwards.”

Kieran with his Wexford father, Gerry O’Brien. Picture courtesy of The Manchester Irish Festival

The roles of Gaz and Dave were played by Robert Carlyle and Mark Addy in the BAFTA-winning film. The stage version sees Kenny Doughty and Roger Morlidge in these roles. Former Coronation Street star Craig Gazey, Simon Rouse, Sidney Cole and Kieran, following Hugo Speer in the role of Guy, make up the pack.

A thunderous reception to its West End opening follows the show visiting Sheffield, Southend, Southampton, Canterbury, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin and Manchester: “We’ve had a lot of different audiences but the general response is always the same and that’s amazing.”

Kieran relished the chance to perform in Ireland where his father came from, describing the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre crowd as insane: “I loved them. I thought they were brilliant. Sometimes you’d be waiting a minute and a half to say a line because the audience were making so much noise and just going crazy, you’re loving the whole experience. I’m not precious about my work so if people are enjoying it, I’ll just stand there in my birthday suit until they’re ready to hear the next bit. That’s what you sign up for really, Dublin was my favourite venue. Being an O’Brien, it’s no great chore to go see the sights of Dublin and enjoy the hospitality.”

Kieran’s father Gerry O’Brien came from New Ross, Wexford and Kieran has often travelled over to support The Boys in Green: “He brought us up the right way: To support anything that is green, white and gold. There’s no cheering in our house when England play. Me and my brothers used to go over quite a bit to Lansdowne to see the lads play and we’d tip over to the point to the boxing.”

The full interview and review of The Full Monty can be found in the March 8 Irish World.

The Full Monty plays at The Noel Coward Theatre until June 14. For more information, call 0844 482 5141 or go to: delfontmackintosh.co.uk.

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