When the Australian tour of Kinky Boots wrapped up in Brisbane on October 22, Toby Francis (who played the lead role of Charlie Price) barely had a moment to stop and breathe. He and his partner, Lauren Peters (together, the team behind Highway Run Productions), are co-producing the current season of High Fidelity at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre with Neil Gooding Productions. It’s a production in which Francis has also taken on the lead role of Rob, played in Stephen Frears’ 2000 film version by John Cusack. And it’s a production that began rehearsals in Sydney the day after Kinky Boots closed.
Speaking to Theatre People in the lead up to High Fidelity’s opening night, Francis reflects on his Kinky Boots experience.
“I adored Kinky Boots and I still do,” he says. “I never in a million years dreamed that my first job in a commercial music theatre context would be a leading role. I felt incredibly grateful straight out of the gate. And, of course, it was all of the things everyone told me it would be – it was a really wild ride, it was exhausting, there was a lot of pressure at times, but there were all of these incredible experiences.”
Francis recalls attending music theatre performances during his childhood.
“I remember being the kid who went to stage door, when we would go to musicals, and want to meet the people who I’d seen on stage,” he says. “To come out of stage door and have people who reminded me of when I was that age, wanting to talk to me because they loved the show so much, it felt very surreal … I always wanted to perform at that level and then I was, and those kids, … some of them want to perform at that level and one day they’ll be doing that too.”
As discussion turns to High Fidelity, Francis says he’s been a fan of the musical for some time.
“I was attached to a production of it, maybe, four years ago that was going to be at Hayes Theatre, which ultimately didn’t get up,” he says. “I listened to the music, I fell in love with it, and I read the script and I really loved that too.”
So, what is it about High Fidelity that particularly appeals to Francis?
“There are no big sweeping themes … It’s just this story about a guy growing up 10 years too late and his ex-girlfriend, set to really amazing music. Those are always the stories that I’m interested in, they’re the things that speak to me and, I think, speak to others as well.”
Francis mentions how quickly the decision was made to stage High Fidelity with Gooding at the Hayes.
“I was in Sydney with Kinky Boots, [and] we were sitting across the road from the Hayes,” he says. “The Hayes had this slot still open for a show to go in that would start rehearsals the day after Kinky Boots closed. I spoke to Neil and said, ‘When are we going to work on something again together?’’”
Francis asked Gooding if he’d be interested in directing High Fidelity.
“He said, ‘I’d love to direct that’ … Within a week, he’d secured the rights and we’d put it to the board at the Hayes and then we were announcing.”
High Fidelity features a first-class cast that includes six of Francis’ Kinky Boots castmates – Teagan Wouters, Joe Kosky, Matthew Predny, Jenni Little, Denise Devlin, and Bronte Florian. Theatre People asks Francis how it was that so many of his KB colleagues came to be involved in this production.
“I like the joke that it was straight-out nepotism. It’s actually a bit more complex than that,” Francis says.
“I adore them all and they’re all perfect for their roles. But they did all audition, and I did ask them to … I really thought that they all fit into the roles that they are currently doing, but was obviously aware that I had a very strong bias … I wanted to let the creative team and everyone else see them and see what I saw and make sure that I wasn’t too biased.”
Francis refers to the experience of having performed alongside Wouters specifically in Kinky Boots.
“You develop a rapport and a chemistry onstage over a year of a run, playing people who are in a relationship. That translates really well and there’s an ease to that relationship onstage between us … We auditioned [for High Fidelity] together. I was reading with her and she walked out of the room, and Neil Gooding and everyone said, ‘That’s the kind of bedrock of a relationship that Rob and Laura need’.”
Francis is passionate about independent theatre.
“I think it’s incredibly important,” he says. “I hope that I will be part of independent theatre for a very long time.”
And he’s long had an association with the Hayes. He played Boland in Dogfight and Stewie in Truth Beauty and a Picture of You, both staged at the Hayes and under Gooding’s direction. His cabaret show, Love and Death and an American Guitar, also played the Hayes to great acclaim. But his history with the venue goes deeper still.
“I was there on day two, helping to pull out things in the foyer and paint and strip stuff,” he says.
Francis shares why he’s such a strong believer in independent theatre.
“It opens more doors because people can get more experience or they can be seen by casting directors doing other work … And I think that you can’t have an industry where you don’t have almost like a feeder team, like you would have in sport. If you play rugby league, you don’t just go straight from playing at a training institution [to] playing for the [Canberra] Raiders. You’ve got a feeder team …”
Francis continues: “The thing that comes up a lot about independent theatre is whether or not the profit-share model has a place. I think it does, because I certainly would not have a career without productions like Dogfight and Truth, beauty and a picture of you … It’s like a proving ground, where you can keep your skills up, you can show your work, you have things to do, you’re developing and you’re meeting people.
“I think it’s an incredibly important part of the industry. I think … it’s unviable to simply have commercial music theatre and nothing in the middle. All my favourite work has been independent theatre – Heathers, which was on there, was one of my favourite things that I’ve ever seen.”
Francis also mentions the opportunity independent theatre provides to audiences to experience a broader range of shows.
“I think there are certain shows that don’t have a life outside of the context of an intimate theatre,” he says. “They’re not mainstage shows, and people who are passionate about them, who want to do the work, should get the opportunity to do it, and audiences who want to see it should get the opportunity to see it.”
Francis is also passionate about his role as a theatre producer and looks forward to continuing to work in that capacity.
“I discovered producing out of necessity, in that I was putting together cabaret shows and the best way to get a cabaret show up is to do it yourself. And then we decided to produce Rent,” he says.
“I love it almost as much as performing. I couldn’t choose which one I would want to do more, so I’m going to try to do both.”
And why does he think this is the right time for High Fidelity to appear on stage?
“At the very heart of it is this story of Rob, who is disastrous in relationships. He blames everyone but himself, he has an entitlement around relationships and around women in his life, he’s never taken responsibility, and his girlfriend walks out on him for that very reason. And he wants to blame her and continue that cycle. He very quietly changes his attitude over the time to say, ‘I am the problem and my attitude is unhealthy and destructive and elitist and patriarchal’.
“We are seeing a massive shift in the way that we talk about and treat relationships between men and women, not just even in a romantic context, but in [terms of] this male entitlement. This male entitlement is shifting and changing, and I think that’s really relevant and it speaks to people like me, who are very privileged, white, middle-class, straight guys who don’t see that you don’t have to be a bad guy to have done the wrong thing or to have exacerbated things that are wrong. And also, it’s not that hard to say, ‘I was actually part of making this situation worse and I’m going to change, and that’s actually the strength of a man’.”
But as Francis stresses, that makes High Fidelity sound like a heavy-going night at the theatre.
“It’s kind of like a sitcom on stage in that it’s very fun, it’s very funny, it wraps it all up in this hilarious script … and the songs are really catchy.”
HIGH FIDELITY – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Season: Playing now until 17 December
Times: Tue-Sat 7.30pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 3pm
Prices: Tue-Thu & Sun $64 Adult, $59 Concession
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337