Blood + Chocolate - the First World War play by York-based playwright Mike Kenny

Mike Kenny playwright

Mike Kenny playwright - Credit: Archant

Award-winning York-based playwright Mike Kenny has written a major new work in the run up to the centenary of the First World War. Tony Greenway talks to him

In rehearsals for Blood + Chocolate Photo by John R.Saunders

In rehearsals for Blood + Chocolate Photo by John R.Saunders - Credit: Archant

Occasionally, strangers ask Mike Kenny what he does for a living. He admits it’s usually better to say less, even though he’s currently one of the most popular and prolific playwrights working in the UK, specialising in young people’s theatre.

‘People seem to think children’s playwrights do it because they can’t get “a proper job” writing for adults,’ he says. ‘I mean, would you say that to JK Rowling or Walt Disney?’ It’s a good point — and, anyway, Mike’s stage credentials are impeccable. He was named by the Independent on Sunday as one of the UK’s top 10 living playwrights and his work is performed regularly throughout the UK and all over the world. In 2008 he won huge acclaim for his Olivier Award-winning adaptation of The Railway Children which delighted audiences at unusual venues, namely York’s National Railway Museum and London’s Waterloo Station.

He’s always in demand. Last Christmas, three of Mike’s fairytale adaptations played at three separate major Yorkshire theatres (including Sleeping Beauty at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds); and earlier in 2012 he hit national headlines as the writer of the epic York Mystery Plays.

‘That was a bit of a monster,’ agrees Mike. ‘I said yes to the Mystery Plays and then, gradually, over the following months and years, the reality of what I’d agreed to began to dawn on me. It was daunting. And it took a long time. At one point I crossed out everything I felt I could do away with and I still had about seven hours worth of material left.’

This month, two of Mike’s plays appear in York. The first is another children’s theatre production called The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which is inspired by the famous Aesop fable and is performed at the Theatre Royal (suitable for children of three and over and their families).

The second is a piece of large scale community theatre called Blood + Chocolate as part of the run-up to the centenary of the First World War. This is almost certainly the biggest, most logistically challenging theatrical production taking place in the North this year, a ‘promenade’ show with a cast of over 200.

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It’s also one of the most hauntingly poignant.

The play tells the story of how, in 1914, the Lord Mayor of York sent out a chocolate tin, designed and made at the Rowntree’s factory, to every soldier from York who fought at the front. The tins found their way to young men in trenches who would never see home again; while, back in York, the women of the city — who had lost or would lose husbands, sons and brothers — took jobs at the factories to keep the home fires burning.

This is an ambitious drama that’s almost cinematic in its scope, telling real stories about real people. Audiences start at York Theatre Royal and follow through the city streets, watching the events unfold in and around some of York’s landmark buildings while listening in to the characters’ conversations via headphones.

‘I suppose the scale is daunting,’ admits Mike, ‘but oddly, it’s not the thing that preys most on my mind. I’m very aware that these stories are based on the lives of people who actually existed, and I feel a huge responsibility to them. They are voices who are often not heard, of ordinary people, who experienced extraordinary events.’

To write Blood + Chocolate was, he says, a privilege. Mike grew up in a working class family in Oswestry, Shropshire, and remembers his first theatre experience vividly. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘actually I had one of those horrible clown moments first when a friend of my dad’s put on a show for the kids at the local gasworks. That totally freaked me out and I had to be carried home.

‘But the first proper show I remember was a panto in Liverpool with — and this is how long ago it was — Jimmy Jewel and Ruby Murray. I remember being confused all the way there because someone said: “We’ve got tickets in the circle.” I thought: “We’re going to be sitting in a circle? How are we going to see anything?”’

The transformative moment for Mike came sitting in the theatre watching the risqué hippy rock musical, Hair, which featured the hit song Let the Sun Shine In, drug use and plenty of male and female nudity. Unfortunately, while everyone was getting naked on stage, Mike was sitting in the stalls with his mother.

‘I was a teenager sitting next to my mum watching this play which had nudity in it,’ he groans. ‘But it also had a rock band and a cast that invaded the audience. I had that feeling that I wanted to do this. I wanted to be involved somehow.’

It didn’t happen overnight. Mike trained to be a teacher first — he comes from a ‘have something to fall back on’ sort of family, he says — and, finally, after years of working on fringe plays and in free workshops, landed a job in a theatre education company at the old Leeds Playhouse. He stayed there for nearly 10 years as his writing career began to flourish.

Children are the theatre audiences of tomorrow, of course; so it’s vital to drag them away from their computer games and The X Factor and get them fired up by the stage. Once they’re in their seats, they love it but getting them into the theatre can be half the battle.

‘I think that’s true,’ says Mike, ‘and I don’t know what that’s about, really. I also think, sadly, theatre audiences are getting older. But some companies do break through, such as (Cornwall-based) Kneehigh, which has a very young following. Because if theatre is done properly it’s amazing, although (theatre and film director) Peter Brook said once: “There’s nothing quite as disappointing as bad theatre.” You can be so let down by it. But if theatre is good it still does the business for me. There’s nothing like it.’

The Boy who Cried Wolf appears at York Theatre Royal until October 12th

Blood + Chocolate appears in York from October 3rd-20th -