More than just panto at Christmas

Playwright Mike Kenny, writer of Rapunzel at the Crucible Studio
Playwright Mike Kenny, writer of Rapunzel at the Crucible Studio

Ian Soutar talks to Mike Kenny whose plays are performed this Christmas at theatres from London to Toronto, and Sheffield

PLAYWRIGHT Mike Kenny seems to be the ‘Mr Christmas’ of theatreland with productions of his plays being performed far and wide over the festive period.

In addition to Rapunzel in Sheffield, he has shows on across the UK in Leeds, Huddersfield, Keswick, Dundee, London and two in Nottingham and internationally in Canada, Greece, Germany, France and the USA.

Surely he can’t be involved in them all? “It’s the brand spanking new ones that get my attention,” he laughs. “That’s because you don’t know if it works until it gets performed and goes in front of an audience and it’s even more scary when it’s a kids audience because if it doesn’t work there is no leeway. They tell you if it’s not good for them.

“A lot of my plays are performed at this time because Christmas is seen as the time for theatre and children. I would like to be liberated from that because I do get work done all the year round but it’s a fact that Christmas is a busy time of the year for all theatres.”

Children and theatre at Christmas tends to mean panto, he says, and his mission has been to prove there is scope for something else. That sometimes has required advance warning to audiences that his version of, for example, Jack and the Beanstalk is not a panto.

Similarly his retelling of Sleeping Beauty at West Yorkshire Playhouse and Beauty and the Beast at the Lawrence Batley at Huddersfield have had to contend with the Disney factor.

“I feel I have been spending a lot of time scraping off the glitter,” he says.

Disney, of course, recently made a version of Rapunzel but the fact that it was called Tangled doesn’t carry the same connection and is not a story that has often been dramatised.

“Rapunzel is a story that’s open to re-interpretation from the essential ingredients of a girl in a tower with long hair and an old woman,” he says.

“One of the things I have changed is that the old woman is her nan and not a witch and she’s bringing her up, a situation that happens in a lot of cultures. The parents are not around and she has been left with the nan who is incredibly protective. She builds a tower which the girl likes when she is little but when she gets older it becomes a prison.

“When you are growing up the things you love as a kid you feel different about as a teenager. Her hair becomes a battleground and like so many people long hair is a statement about your identity. I can remember growing my hair when I was young and with a dad who was in the army it was a kind of coded message.”

Despite all this, it’s still the story of Rapunzel.

“It’s necessary to take the original story seriously because I think you can get a little too post-modern. Take Shrek, which is a great children’s film, but I kind of think it’s sort of taking the mickey and a bit too knowing for my taste.

“These are kids myths which contain some quite serious stuff. Rapunzel is hopefully funny and is not too worthy and tells a story which I think is quite moving.”

Kenny knows the Crucible from his early days when he worked with Wendy Harris who went on to become tutti frutti artistic director and directed Rapunzel. As an associate at Sheffield Theatres she commissioned Kenny’s first play for young audiences, The Lost Child, 1989.

He lives in York where his biggest hit to date was staged. His adaptation of The Railway Children for York Theatre Royal premiered at the National Railway Museum in York before transferring to a theatre in the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo Station.

Did its success open doors for the writer? “Not particularly. The National Theatre hasn’t been ringing and my work has continued to be largely based up here.”

This summer his version of the Mystery Plays was performed in the Museum Gardens in York and he says he welcomed being able to work with a bigger cast on a bigger stage. Children’s theatre tends to be small scale - Rapunzel which is a three-hander being an example.

All that hasn’t prevented him earning a place in the Independent on Sunday’s list of Top Ten Living UK Playwrights