Arts / Toby grabs success, boots and all

Canberra’s Toby Francis… “My teachers said I got bored and I had a total inability to concentrate on things, to sleep or to cope with my emotions.”

AT age 29, musical star Toby Francis has a lot to skite about, but he’s remarkably modest.

The boy from Canberra is hitting the heights starring as the straight hero Charlie in “Kinky Boots”, the Cyndi Lauper-Harvey Fierstein musical that’s just moved from Melbourne to Sydney.

I caught up with Francis after seeing the show in Melbourne recently. The Canberra connections are still strong and he immediately recalls his drama teachers Peter van Riswick at St Francis Xavier and Kate Rose and Steve Brown at Hawker College.

“It’s my first time on the main stage in a production of this scale and with a touring deal,” he says, although he’s done some independent musicals.

Born in Queanbeyan and raised in Canberra, Francis was a chess freak from age six and also read up on science, but he couldn’t keep his mind on his studies.

“I was a terrible student at school,” he says – but there was a reason.

Once he got to Hawker College it was all very grown-up.

“We all called everyone by first names, Kate and Steve were my drama teachers… Steve would constantly talk about this thing called character,” he says.

“I really wanted to do straight plays,” he says, “I wanted to be an actor, but I also sang.”

It was in the drama class at Hawker when he was 17 that he met his fiancée Lauren Peters, now a designer with the Hayes Theatre in Sydney.

Last year the pair made headlines when they announced a pact not to marry until their gay friends gained marriage rights.

“Lauren understands me and she was always supportive,” he says.

Francis took singing classes with the late Phil Perman, played Edmund in Phoenix Players’ “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”, won a couple of CAT nominations, did work experience at The Street Theatre then headed for the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney.

At age 23 he won first place in the Sydney Cabaret Showcase Festival with his one-man show, “Blokelahoma”, went on to write “The King is Dead, Long Live Queen”, got a touring gig with the Ten Tenors, did a writing workshop with John Cleese, formed Highway Run Productions with Peters and staged “Rent” at the Hayes, and won the 2014 Sydney Theatre Award for another cabaret show, “Love, Death and an American Guitar”.

But all the while a dark shadow was hanging over Francis in the form of undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“There was an inability to focus on one thing, my teachers said I got bored and I had a total inability to concentrate on things, to sleep or to cope with my emotions,” he says.

By chance he stumbled upon an article about ADHD and with the support of Peters, sought medical advice. At age 26 the condition was confirmed. “To have the diagnosis explained so much about my life, I was at my wits’ end,” he says.

Now with medication and a happy personal life, Francis has turned the corner and when he’s not acting, spends his spare time doing courses on economics and sciences, and committing himself to political issues.

“I’m a political man,” he says, “and I’m really passionate about making sure that this theatre industry is thriving.”

And there’s the success of “Kinky Boots” to cap it all. “Melbourne audiences have embraced it all the way, with people jumping up and dancing around singing songs they’ve never heard,” he enthuses.

Francis landed the role of youthful factory boss Charlie in the hit musical about a Northampton shoe factory that saves itself by producing “kinky” boots for drag queens. Coincidentally, his co-star is another Francis – Callum – playing Lola, the flamboyant transvestite. Callum is from London and they’re entirely unrelated, though they bonded immediately.

His contact with such a seasoned player has taught him that “capturing character is everything, but it tends to get lost in the glitter”.

“My character Charlie starts out not knowing who he is and what he wants, he gets to breaking point… the challenge was to make sure that Charlie was relatable to audiences… you make sure your character’s voice is heard.”

“Kinky Boots,” at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, to June 25, bookings to ticketmaster.com.au

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