Review: Funny Boys – Empire Theatre Projects Company at Empire Theatre Studio (Toowoomba)

This one left me wondering about the kind of theatre audience that likes what I think of (snootily, perhaps) as playground humour. I’ve seen glimpses of it on the Footy Show while channel surfing – of course! You know the kind of stuff: mildly offensive boob jokes, cross-dressing, lip-sync musical numbers …

Well, clearly there are lots who do, or so it would seem from the many young and not-so-young in the audience around me last night at Empire Projects Company’s brand new, sold-out production Funny Boys directed by Lucas Stibbard and devised by Lucas, the actors, and Claire Christian, a Creative Producer at the Empire.

You are going to love or loathe this juvenile silliness or dismiss it as trite and not worth an hour of your time in the theatre. That would be a shame because the central idea and the talent behind the grab-bag collection of crass and coarse skits, songs, magic tricks, dance routines and other oddities which include (amongst a whole lot more ) audience participation, nudity, and an eating competition is all rather sweet and affecting, really!

The aforesaid ‘boys’ Steve Pirie, Dan Stewart, Josh Doyle and Matt Collins have delightful stage presences.  I’ve seen Dan, Steve and Matt on stage before in mainhouse Empire productions; all are undoubted talents. Funny Boys marks a departure in the kind of work these actors have attempted. I haven’t seen Josh Doyle’s work before. His relaxed, easy stage demeanour is charming. He’s an authentic Aussie bloke – my favourite, I think, despite his character’s seriously weird obsession for Dannii Minogue, boobs and other ummm … bodily parts.

Funny Boys is an ensemble piece  – the boys (Dan Maximus Funny, Steve Titus Funny, Josh Batman Funny, and Matthew Bartholemew Funny) are the sons of circus performers who have run away (from them). The boys sing, dance, play silly buggers and generally amuse themselves with routines they’ve worked up over years in their rumpus-room back home in Cecil Plains and which is now recreated (complete with bunk-bed) in the studio. They wait to show the result of their efforts to their parents; a couple of empty seats remain (hopefully) at each performance just in case …

One of the problems with Funny Boys is that it has smart young men, sharp actors playing likeable dopes, and they don’t always pull it off. There is a sense at times of straining and even of trying too hard. The play takes a while to get going, and some of the comic timing needs tightening up.  The material they have to work with doesn’t help; it is slight (intentionally so – that’s part of the joke) but it also contains a through-line that revolves around sexual obsession, loss, sibling rivalry, and the desire to please (read ‘loved’). Comedy is, after all, serious stuff as Charlie Chaplin once sagely noted.

And it’s serious stuff that runs through all the nonsense that the Funny Boys spew; I use that word advisedly, be warned! I wonder whether a reworking of the piece might reveal a bit more of the pathos at the work’s heart. Certainly, when the piece swung briefly out of performative into real-life territory it came alive, as did the actors. More of this, I think will make for a more affecting play and, certainly, a more varied one. The script really does need further development, something I am sure the group are well aware of.

Whatever direction Funny Boys takes, it’s great to see the investment by local companies in local artists and in new and risky material. I understand the plan is to take the show to fringe festivals and, I suspect, this is where it and the ensemble will be further honed and developed. Meanwhile, they are playing again tomorrow (Tuesday) evening at the Empire Theatre Studio. The first three shows sold out fast, so you will have to get in quickly today if you want to catch this first season of Funny Boys. I have a feeling they will be back. We have all been warned!