Mike Kenny takes over Yorkshire this Christmas
It would not be Christmas time in the theatre without performances of some of Mike Kenny‘s plays for children. This year the total across the UK is seven, with three of them here in Yorkshire: tutti frutti with a new version of The Boy who Cried Wolf at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, and The Princess and the Pea in Sheffield Crucible‘s Studio, and Hull Truck Theatre with a rodent-filled take on Cinderella.
Some of the reasons for Mike Kenny’s success are obvious: his adaptability in terms of scale, from the immensity of The Railway Children to the smallest studio production; his great awareness of his audience; his ability to approach a fable or fairy story from left field, take it apart, but reveal its essence very clearly.
However, when I asked him the secret, he insisted there was no great magic there, the main factors were longevity and timing. Well, he’s certainly been around for long enough to perfect his craft and, as for timing, he tells the story of his early career.
Having trained as a teacher, he obtained work at the old Leeds Playhouse in 1968 as a sort of actor-teacher, part of a team of nine funded full-time to take plays into Leeds schools and put on an annual production in the Playhouse – in retrospect, in these straitened and illiberal times, it seems incredible, but Mike took full advantage of the privilege. In 8 ½ years he learned about what he calls "the process", the craft of making a play that works for a specific audience without the apparatus of traditional theatre.
When Mike left the Playhouse, he says that it wasn’t a case of vowing never to set eyes on a child in the theatre again, but he was looking for something different and certainly children’s plays were not his planned career trajectory. He moved into devising plays for local companies such as Red Ladder, but soon the swingeing cuts of the Thatcher era required more economical use of time – the solitary craft of the writer rather than the time-consuming group development – and he had learned that craft! 30-odd years later he says that it’s still his mission – the passion hasn’t abated – to write plays that are funny and entertaining, but also about something more than a simple narrative!
The Boy who Cried Wolf was first staged at York Theatre Royal in Autumn 2013, with tutti frutti director Wendy Harris persuading an initially reluctant Mike Kenny to adapt the Aesop fable. Mike has no great enthusiasm for the ancient Greek fabulist, regarding him as rather black and white and moralistic, but with Wendy’s prompting he produced a more nuanced version of the story. Rather than simply getting his comeuppance, the boy goes on a journey of discovery, in Mike’s words, "to find the wolf inside himself".
After York, the play toured very successfully and played a Christmas season at the Crucible Studio in Sheffield, but Mike and Wendy thought there was more to be found in the story. So Huddersfield audiences will see a longer version, aimed at the whole family, not just primary age children, taking its time more, though at 80 minutes plus interval, with jolly music and comic sheep, it’s hardly likely to drag. The Mike Kenny/tutti frutti combination also turns up at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre, with The Princess and the Pea, aimed at audiences from 3 upwards.
Cinderella is a new production (by Mike Babych, artistic director of Hull Truck) of a text first staged at West Yorkshire Playhouse Courtyard Theatre five years ago. Many of us remember with delight the joyously irreverent version of the story played out by rats! And, as a final footnote, Mike gleefully points out that Sophie McShera, Cinderella at the Playhouse, has just landed the role of an Ugly Sister in the 2015 Disney film of Cinderella. So who knows what Christmas seasons at Hull, Sheffield and Huddersfield will lead to for the actors involved? What is certain is that these versions of familiar stories will surprise, entertain and make their young audiences think.
Cinderella is at Hull Truck Theatre from 5 December – 10 January 2015.
The Princess and the Pea is at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield, from 10 December – 3 January 2015.
The Boy who Cried Wolf is at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, from 12 – 28 December.