Playwright Mike Kenny on retelling the story of the boy who never grew up
- Credit: Archant
Mike Kenny is a playwright with over 30 years’ experience. Rob Gemmell speaks to him about his work, about not growing up and also how he adapted one of the most famous children’s books in history.
“All children except one grow up.” An immortal line that opens one of the most famous stories ever read. J.M. Barrie is a name that is instantly recognisable amongst young and old. He was a Scottish novelist and playwright best known as the creator of Peter Pan. Ironically, the story of Peter Pan actually started life as a play before it became a novel.
Wendy Harris is the Artistic Director at Tutti Frutti, a theatre company specialising in work for children. Wendy and Mike’s friendship goes back around thirty years and the pair are set to unite again to retell the story of the boy who never grew up. “Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for the initial idea.” Mike confesses. “That came from Wendy. It must be a name thing as she is called Wendy like the Wendy in the story of Peter Pan!” Mike continues. “The name Wendy was actually made popular purely by the inclusion of it in the novel by J.M. Barrie.”
Mike’s play is based on Peter Pan, but telling the story from the perspective of Wendy. “We decided to tell it from her point of view because a lot has changed over the years for girls. In the original story Wendy was like a mother figure, expected to look after the Lost Boys and to cook and clean, but girls can expect a lot more growing up nowadays. Our version is with three actors portraying the characters of Wendy, John and Michael. Wendy and her brothers are having an end of summer sleepover in the back garden in a Wendy house. Wendy gets to try on all possibilities as she steps into the role of Peter, of the pirates and even mermaids. It tells the traditional story, but there are differences to the way it is played out. Wendy is telling the story, but she is struggling with the idea that this might be the last time they play together as children as she feels she is getting too old. It questions whether the world of play and childhood will last forever. There’s something not right about not growing up. It sounds heavier than what it is, but it is in the original story.”
Mike went on to discuss the theories surrounding the characters. “There is a question as to whether Peter Pan is actually alive, it is not raised in the play, but there are also other, deeper discussions as to whether the Lost Boys are locked in the memory of childhood because they died in infancy as so many Victorian children did.”
I asked Mike how difficult it was to adapt such a classic story. “I thought it would be quite easy, but as it’s such a brilliant piece of work it was difficult to scale down. Also, the show is being performed for a younger audience than one that would usually watch Peter Pan, so that had to be taken into consideration. The biggest challenge was to condense the story down, but to ensure it still had the main events and characters in it. I had to completely rewrite the first version as it was like a PhD version explaining the story rather than telling it. I had made Peter Pan boring! I am really pleased with it now and rehearsals are underway so that’s great. It is always a challenge to get your vision from page to stage and it has to have the inclusion of one of the most important aspects of theatre to me, the audience’s imagination.”
I then asked Mike a question that he always gets asked and admitted to never knowing how to answer. What is the attraction of working with children? “I always gets asked the question and I always struggle to answer it!” He laughs. “I always wonder if Walt Disney ever got asked that question or J.K. Rowling. I suppose I have always been interested in childhood from being a child and I am interested by conversations with children. They are hungry for information; they want to know everything because they haven’t been here that long. They give you their attention, but also they even give you more than that in a whole hearted way if you are honest with them. The speed in which they change is unbelievable sometimes.”
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Mike’s next piece of work is a dark, contrast from the story of Peter Pan as he explained to me. “I’m working on a play for a company called Graeae (pronounced ‘Grey Eye’) they are a theatre company who showcase the talents of people with disability. Jenny Sealey MBE is the Artistic Director and one of the people who worked on the opening ceremony for the Paralympic games in London 2012. The piece is part of a programme called 14-18 Now which is a commemoration celebrating 100 years on from first world war. It’s an outdoor piece which will be shown in 2018 commemorating the disabled. Jenny worked a lot with disabled vets at the Paralympics and that was part of what drew inspiration. There are always services or remembrances that commemorate the dead, but 2 million people come back from wars disabled. They have lived through war, but there is nothing to commemorate them.” Mike recollects a meeting as part of his research into the story. “We gathered together some amputees who had lost limbs during the war to have a talk with them and they were absolutely hilarious! They had me in tears of laughter just by the way they were talking about what happened to them.” A clear, divergence in subject matter, but an indication of the ability and versatility of Mike’s skill.
But, for now, we head onwards. Back to Neverland…
Underneath a Magical Moon tours the country throughout the winter including performances at York Royal Theatre and the Ilkley Literature Festival. For more details visit tutti-frutti.org.uk