the boys next door

The Boys Next Door

Brisbane Arts Theatre

10th March- 4th April

Reviewed by Jo Hendrie


“Disability is not a brave struggle or ‘courage in the face of adversity’.

Disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.”

Neil Marcus, ‘disabled’ actor, playwright and poet.


Something very special took place on Saturday night within the walls of the warm and intimate Brisbane Arts Theatre.  Something tender.  Something sweet. Something disarmingly real.   I met  The Boys Next Door.   I’m convinced that every member of the Opening Night audience wanted to bundle up the cast and take them home. This production is delightful.

Written in 1986 by Tom Griffin, The Boys Next Door, originally titled Damaged Hearts, Broken Flowers, is a two act comedy-drama about the internal and external worlds of four intellectually disabled men – Arnie, Lucien, Norman, and Barry – who share a small suburban flat; and of their carer Jack  who struggles to balance his compassion and commitment to the men with his troubled personal life.

The architecture of the play is fascinating – a series of vignettes tied together with only minor plot threads, which at times feels fragmented and disjointed as we are hurled from one anxiety-fuelled yet often humorous situation to the next.  Each vignette focuses primarily on one character at a time with all his personal obsessions, quirks and struggles ; but there are also many poignant moments of connection to each other and to others they encounter as they attempt to integrate into the outside world. The script’s design, with its whirling, fragmented, and ever-changing scenarios cleverly reflects  the seemingly disjointed world in which the central characters live.  Most of the text is written in ordinary dialogue.  But every now and then, characters step into a narrative role as they directly address the audience with informative and intensely engaging monologues. Each member of this strong  cast, superbly directed by Shaun King, immersed himself  in his role with great sensitivity, tenderness and authenticity; transcending stereotypes and sharing with us rare and intimate insights.

Following Soapbox Theatre’s hugely successful season of Cosi last year ( which, as it so happens, also tackled the difficult subjects of mental health and intellectual disability), veteran actors Garth Ledwidge and Marc James are reunited again in The Boys Next Door. Ledwidge plays the articulate, high-functioning yet excruciatingly anxious Arnold Wiggins with fabulous physicality and  compelling stage presence. As the lovable Norman Bulansky, James is just wonderful, exuding sweetness, warmth and generosity of spirit.  Perfectly cast, James steals our hearts as the romantic hero of the piece. But more of that later.

Performing in his first ever stage role is Jake Connor Moss, playing the role of the deeply troubled, schizophrenic Barry Klemper.  This is an incredibly challenging role for one so young, and I feel Moss fell short in fully developing the complexities of his character. Having said that, there is great potential here, and I’m sure this budding young thespian will dig deep and flourish under the inspiring mentorship  of his wonderful director and fellow cast members. He is indeed in rich potting mix here, and I look forward to returning at the end of the season to see how Moss has developed and strengthened his role as Barry .

The Artistic Director of Brisbane Arts, John Boyce, beautifully portrays Lucien P. Smith, perhaps the most child-like and vulnerable of the four roommates. It is through the character of Lucien that we see into the cold world of Government beaurocracy, as he appears before the Human Services Committee  to have his social security benefits reviewed.  Dressed in his spiderman tie, he struggles to answer the questions being presented to him, and instead mumbles incoherently and sings the alphabet song. In what, for me, is the most powerful and unforgettable moment of the play, Lucien then stands and delivers a heartwrenching monologue which speaks of the plight of the disabled in our society:

“I am mystified by faucets, radios, elevators, newspapers and popular songs. I cannot remember the names of my parents. But I will not go away.  And damaged though I may be, I shall not wither because I am unique, and irreplaceable, and a part of you all.     Civilizations are judged by the way they treat their most helpless of citizens. I am that citizen.  And if you turn away from me, you’ll extinguish your own light, deny your own warmth.  I am just a simple man. But I am simply just …  a man.”

Spoken with restrained power and conviction in a display of fine acting by Boyce, this is deeply moving stuff.

Juxtaposed against the chaotic, manic, highly strung nature of the roommates is the grounded, less colourful Jack, played by Michael FitzHywel. There were times throughout FitzHywel’s performance when I hoped for deeper sincerity in his work, but this may simply have been his interpretation his character –  the weary, jaded, disillusioned social worker. This contrast is most evident during a wonderfully touching moment in the first act when Jack, sitting on the sofa in the living room with the four men arguing all around him, turns to the audience and softly remarks, “I can’t decide if it’s the saddest place I’ve ever been … or the happiest.”

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, this production is filled with many uplifting, funny moments. Contributing enormously to these moments were some brilliant performances by strong supporting actors Cindy Nelson as Mrs Freemus / Clara; and particularly Francesca Gasteen as Norman’s adorable love interest, Sheila, who lights up the stage. My favourite scene in the play takes place at the weekly dance that Norman and Sheila regularly attend. A lovely romance has blossomed between them and their chemistry is heartwarmingly tangible. As they dance cheek to cheek, awkwardly at first but then melting into each other’s arms, they suddenly magically transcend their limitations, and the scene moves into a beautiful dream sequence that made my spirit soar.  During other comic moments, I laughed and laughed, and sometimes wondered if I ought to be. But you see, I wasn’t laughing at these lovable characters, but with them. As I identified and empathized with their awkwardness, struggles, erratic rhythms  and idiosyncracies, I felt release and relief to be part of this motley crew of fumbling works- in- progress called humanity. And there it is. That fine line between tragedy and comedy that was so tenderly and sensitively negotiated throughout this production.

Set and lighting design is simple, authentic and effective, and the stage and technical crew generally did a sound job in keeping things moving. Some clever lighting was used to depict the dappled images of a movie reflected onto Arnie’s face in a scene which took place in a cinema. Scene changes between inside and outside the apartment often involved the actors stepping downstage as a curtain closed behind them. A dancehall was created with the simple use of a mirror ball and soundscape of 80’s music. Early in the first act, we enjoy a scene where the four men are attempting to catch, kill and flush a ‘rat’ . The use of blackout and torches made the visual effect absolutely riotous, and the audience was in stitches.  Despite the simplicity of design, everything worked well.

Those who have watched the 1996 film of the same name (starring Nathan Lane, Michael Jete, Courtney B Vance and Robert Shaun Leonard) will understand that our local actors had mighty shoes to fill. I commend and congratulate Brisbane Arts Theatre on producing another engaging and thoroughly enjoyable show.

After the curtain call, I had the pleasure and privilege of chatting with director Shaun King and several members of the cast over a glass of celebratory wine. Interestingly (and touchingly), the very first question on each of their lips was not “Did you enjoy our show?”, but “Tell me, did you feel that as actors we portrayed our characters with dignity and respect? It’s our  intention to honour these people, and to not mock them in any way.”  It is, potentially, a tricky and dangerous thing to produce a comedy about the intellectually disabled. But I was very happy to reassure them that The Boys Next Door is a funny, gentle and compassionate offering which gives us licence to let down our own masks and celebrate all that unites us as human beings. Do get along to Brisbane Arts to experience this wonderful production.  My very best wishes to the fabulous cast and crew for a successful season.

The Boys Next Door runs until 7th April.  Book online or call Brisbane Arts Theatre 07 3369 2344


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