Mike Kenny has enjoyed an unprecedented period of success in recent years and it shows no sign of slowing down. Nick Ahad met him.
Earlier this century The Independent on Sunday came up with a list of the top ten living British playwrights.
There were some notable absences and for Yorkshire audiences one very notable inclusion: Mike Kenny.
Having spent much of his writing career creating work for children’s theatre, it was a feather in his cap for the writer and a welcome recognition that actually, just because you write for young people, it doesn’t mean your work is not appreciated. At least, that should be the case, and for a number of outside observers, it was.
Mike Kenny doesn’t take it so seriously. He laughs at the memory of being included in the list and the exclusion of some very famous names and makes an odd sort of “guilty-caught-with-his-fingers-in-the-cookie-jar” face.
“It’s lovely and all, but you can’t sit there thinking about awards and accolades and the like, because you’d never do anything. You’d just sit there paralysed, unable to write,” he says.
The York playwright found himself on the top British playwrights list in 2003, but it is in the last few years that a wider public have come to know him and his work, thanks to some major hits. He was the man behind the hit The Railway Children, which began its life at York’s National Railway Museum before transferring to London. When it got there, Kenny won an Olivier for the play.
Today, eating a baked potato in the West Yorkshire Playhouse café, he is not just unassuming about his achievements, but almost wants to shrug them off. And the reason why he isn’t interested in basking is because – prepare yourselves those who think X Factor is the way to fame and fortune – it’s all the result of hard work.
“It’s a craft. I never intended to be a playwright. I started out as an actor. Actually, I started out studying law, but gave that up after a year. As an actor I was working in theatre in education which meant going into schools,” he says.
“Working in that way meant a number of different things – you go in and come out of the same door as your audience, you have to hold the interest of a room full of children and you do performances of the same play in different schools, 150 times. You learn how to work with an audience.”
You also, clearly, learn how to write for one when you work in this way.
Since the late 1970s, when he started writing, while still working as an actor, Kenny has written dozens of plays, mainly for young people, that are performed all over the world.
“I had an Irish dad and a Welsh mum, so we were a big talking family,” says Kenny.
A family tragedy – his mum had a breakdown when he was young – and winning a place at a grammar school, despite coming from a very poor estate, gave Kenny the ability to stand outside a situation and look on it with detachment and an understanding of the difficulties some children face. It meant that when he started telling stories on stage, he didn’t shy away from darkness – and young audiences responded to that honesty.
“Children need protecting from the bad stuff in life, but they need to understand what the bad stuff is in the first place,” he says.
“We live in times of health and safety puritanism, but I have always thought that theatre was a place where you could talk about dangerous things in total safety.”
Given the awards lining his shelves, it’s a formula that’s working for him.
Kenny’s Yorkshire Christmas Treats
Mike Kenny has no fewer than three plays on in Yorkshire theatres this Christmas.
Rapunzel, Sheffield Studio: Tutti Frutti stages the playwright’s version of the fairy tale. In Kenny’s version. Rapunzel wants to cut her own hair and see the outside world herself, Dec 12-Jan 5.
Beauty and the Beast: With added music in this new version of the classic fairy tale at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, Dec 13-30.
Sleeping Beauty: Kenny teams up with long-time collaborator Gail McIntyre. West Yorkshire Playhouse, Dec 7-Jan 19.