The Life and Times of Mitchell and Kenyon (Lancaster & Oldham)

Michael Nunn admires this celebration of two innovators at The Dukes in Lancaster

The Life and Times of Mitchell and Kenyon is a specially-commissioned "Play with Songs" by Daragh Carville, and tells the story of Sagar Mitchell (Gareth Cassidy) and James Kenyon (Christopher Wright), two Victorian artisan shopkeepers from Blackburn who would achieve international fame as Britain’s pioneering film-makers.

Gareth Cassidy and Christopher Wright
Gareth Cassidy and Christopher Wright
© Joel Fildes

The original films, carefully stored away when the partnership dissolved as developments in the industry overtook them and their work, were rediscovered by chance in the 1990s. Thus the two innovators were granted a new life – in books, on the contemporary screen, and as key figures in the Victorian and Edwardian history of North Lancashire.

Lancaster-based Carville’s nicely structured text engagingly describes the couple’s first meetings and their subsequent, hugely successful career, which began in the late 1890s in the then-thriving industrial town of Blackburn. It is, appropriately, roughly half way between the homes of the two companies – The Dukes in Lancaster and Oldham’s Coliseum Theatre – who have jointly mounted this production.

The action follows the couple as they tour the country, capturing the denizens of the all the major cities and many smaller towns leaving work, indulging in sports, bank holiday festivities, troop mobilisations and, memorably, holidaymakers simply strolling along Morecambe’s then-busy promenade. Astutely, they would shoot the films during the morning and afternoon, process them, and then screen them that evening, for a charge, at one of the local theatres or showgrounds. There was a huge response for the screenings; the masses were insatiably keen to see themselves on the new-fangled silver screen. In that context, perhaps Mitchell and Kenyon pioneered what we now know as the "selfie" …

Under Blackburn lass Amy Leach‘s snappy direction, the cast of five give robust, characterful performances in over a dozen very different roles with some astute doubling. The action is not merely historical narrative, but also shows us the human and emotional sides of the two protagonists, their families and associates and both the joys and despairs of being high-profile figures.

The story plays out on a versatile set by designer Barney George, and imitating the dog’s evocative and imaginative video and lighting design makes an eloquent complement to Mitchell & Kenyon’s own cinematographic genius. The whole is generously and judiciously laced with music by John Biddle that invokes the popular Music Hall tradition of the times (with a not anachronistic nod to Stephen Sondheim).

All these diverse production elements combine into a cohesive unity with not a little magic of a showman’s flair and a fine look at the past with a positive, healthy appreciation of our heritage.

The Life and Times of Mitchell and Kenyon runs in Lancaster until May 10 and then transfers to The Oldham Coliseum from 15 – 31 May.

– Michael Nunn