Playwright Mike Kenny: Why a grammar school education didn't work for me

Mike Kenny is a leading children's playwright, but with the curtain about to go up on his latest production he tells Sarah Freeman why he fears for the future of the arts.

Playwright Mike Kenny, whose latest production Underneath a Magical Moon is a version of Peter Pan.

On paper, Mike Kenny could be a poster boy for Theresa May’s grammar school revival. Born in Owestry on the Welsh border to a dad who drove a lorry and a mum who worked in Littlewoods, the young Kenny catapulted himself up the social ladder when he passed his 11 plus in 1962.

Now living in York, a successful playwright and proud owner of an Olivier award, he is surely proof of the benefits of a grammar school education. Except that’s not quite how he remembers it.

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“It was disastrous,” he says. “My mum had previously cleaned the houses of the boys I found myself in the same class with. Their parents were either lawyers or doctors, so it didn’t make for a great mix. You were taught to believe that you had earned the opportunity to be in this privileged position, but the truth was you felt neither fish nor fowl. In order to fit i,n boys like me gradually denied a whole element of their culture and their background. It wasn’t healthy and it was divisive.”

In those days singing in the local choir was about as close as Kenny got to performing and it was only after dropping out of university during the first year of a law degree that he became switched onto theatre. Living in London, he got a job with the Post Office but in his spare time could often be found in the cheap seats of some theatre or other. Later he enrolled at teacher training college and afterwards found himself working for the Leeds Playhouse Theatre in Education department taking new work into a succession of different schools.

“It was the 1970s, the Arts Council was still in its infancy and there was a real belief that children from whatever background should have access to the arts,” says Kenny. “Now schools tend to only take their pupils to the theatre to see an adaptation of whatever book is on the English syllabus and I do wonder whether we really need any more stage versions of To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men.”

Kenny ended up specialising in theatre for younger audiences and next up is Underneath a Magical Moon, a version of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan told from the perspective of Wendy.

“A lot of people don’t know, but Peter Pan started out as a play. I think that’s interesting. These days you get a lot of books which are adapted for major shows like a JK Rowling or a Philip Pulman, but I’m not sure we will ever get another Peter Pan. Funding cuts mean theatres are wary of putting on new work, and if they do they want a guaranteed return. No one feels able to take risks anymore and that’s very sad.”

While Kenny has spread his wings, it’s children’s theatre to which he keeps returning and his extensive CV is an A to Z of some of the most enduring stories.

“I can only describe it as a vocation,” he says. “I like the honesty of a young audience because they don’t hide their boredom or disappointment. I have been to some adult productions where the audience clap with such enthusiasm when all I am wondering is why they are sitting through such pap.”

Kenny scored a major hit in 2008 with The Railway Children. First staged at the National Railway Museum by York Theatre Royal, it ended up in London and Toronto picking up that Olivier Award along the way.

“I never, ever thought it would be such a success because it needed a railway track and an antique locomotive,” says Kenny, who is also working on an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland for Derby Playhouse. “But there was something quite magical about that production. However, I learnt to never rest on my laurels. Even now I find that I still bump my head on the glass ceiling . I’m 65 and I still go into rooms thinking I know in here everyone will be different to me.”

Underneath a Magical Moon, York Theatre Royal, October 6 to 22. 01904 623568,