Mike Kenny - the children’s playwright with a Midas touch

Children can be a tough audience, but writer Mike Kenny certainly knows how to engage them. He spoke to Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad.

Annabel Betts in Hull Truck's Sleeping Beauty.
Annabel Betts in Hull Truck's Sleeping Beauty.

When it comes to writing theatre for younger audiences, Mike Kenny is the man with the midas touch.

Associated with York for so many years, it seems strange to remember that his work has been seen in theatres around the county – but then, it has been seen in theatres around the world.

Recognised as one of the country’s best playwrights of work for young people, he is as successful as he is prolific.

How does he do it? It’s a typically Mike Kenny answer: “I sold my soul to the devil long ago. No. I’ve been doing this a long time now. I think I really started to dig deeply into theatre for children when I was an actor and teacher in the Theatre in Education Company at the old Leeds Playhouse. You know the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at something? Well that was my 10,000 hours. In fact, I just did the sums and it actually added up to 20,000. I aim to make it look easy for an audience, though the truth of doing it is a bit boring. I spend a long time thinking. I do a lot of research. Traditional tales are much studied, and I’ve got a library of books that will provide a Freudian approach, a Marxist analysis, a feminist perspective and a historical view. Meanwhile, I make notes, I try to remain playful.”

At Hull Truck Theatre this year the unique Mike Kenny take on the story of Sleeping Beauty is being brought to the stage. “One of the starting points for Sleeping Beauty was the Babushkas who were the Eurovision Song Contest entry for Russia a couple of years ago. So my fairy godmothers are a bunch of Nannas,” he says.

“This is comfortable ground for me, because I was surrounded by my mum, her mum, and all their sisters and friends, when I was growing up. The important thing to me, in the end, is that the audience have a great time, but that they feel enriched by it.”

Part of the secret of success for Kenny is that he treats what he does with enormous respect.

“Fairy stories are like the Greek myths of childhood. They contain eternal social and psychological truths. Sleeping Beauty is about a girl whose father is overprotective, who won’t let her grow up. I’ve added to that mix, a boy who needs desperately to impress his father. These are archetypes that will never go out of fashion,” he says.

Kenny’s version of Hansel and Gretel is on stage now at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, where it runs until December 27.

Anyone who has seen a Mike Kenny show will agree that his work certainly appears subversive. Kenny doesn’t think so: “ It’s funny that you should say I subvert these traditional stories. I feel like I reveal what’s really there. I’d say Disney is far more subversive than me. Take his Snow White for example. I feel that whistling while you do the house work, helped by happy animals, is much dodgier than anything I’ve ever done.”

Whatever he does, it works. Children flock to see his shows and lap them up once they are there. “Children are a hard audience. You have to earn them and win them. I like the fact that they’re not coming for their culture top up. They are coming to be both entertained and engaged in the business of the world. They haven’t been here long. So they’re not jaded, but they don’t want their time wasted. And everybody must know that the place deep in the stomach that a child laughs from is the most amazing thing. We seem to lose it as we get older.”

As hard an audience as they are, is there a difference to the work he writes for adults – he very successfully translated The Railway Children for the stage – and the work he creates for children? “The closest I can get to an answer to this, is this. I just try to include them in the conversation about the big subjects about being human. I have three sons and the age gap between the oldest and the youngest is 14 years. Every day we sat round a table to eat, and everyone took part in the general talk. It’s important that no one is excluded. Adults don’t just become grown ups magically overnight. And children aren’t actually a different species.”

With so many plays under his belt, it’s easy to imagine Kenny might run out of ideas, eventually. The good news is that he reckons there’s little chance of that happening. “I’m a big believer that what I do is a craft as much as an art. It’s not finite. You just have to pay attention to the world you’re living in. The stories are there. Often a playwright will take an existing story and hold it up to the light. Shakespeare, for example. I think only one of his plays was an original story.”

With his latest play being staged in Hull – audiences grew used to seeing his work on the stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse at Christmas – and having worked staged across the region, Kenny has an interesting insight into the differences between Yorkshire – West, North and East.

“Each of those audiences are slightly different, yes, but I aim for universality. I tend to think that the similarities are more important than the differences. I come from a mixed heritage and didn’t grow up here. Both my grandmothers were foundlings.

“I’m a mongrel. I like to think that anyone, anywhere can take stuff from my plays and bring things to it. I think Hull has taken a hammering in recent years, and I feel my plays have an affinity for the underdog. They feel very much at home in Hull. I really like the place and I think that comes across.”

Sleeping Beauty, Hull Truck, to January 9. Hansel and Gretel, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, to December 27.