In conversation with Mike Kenny

Underneath a Magical Moon is a re-imagining of J.M Barrie’s much loved tale Peter Pan and who better to adapt the classic other than the leading children's playwright, Mike Kenny?

By Manchester's Finest | December 1st '16

Fresh from the critical acclaim of their latest production WiLd!, Tutti Frutti are set to team up with York Theatre Royal for the premiere of Underneath a Magical Moon. This will stage at the Waterside Arts Centre from December 8th.

Underneath a Magical Moon is a re-imagining of J.M Barrie’s much loved tale Peter Pan and who better to adapt the classic other than the leading children’s playwright, Mike Kenny?

(Olivier Award: The Railway Children).

Manchester’s Finest got to talk to the man himself as he discusses everything from inspiration to the accessibility of the arts.

What inspired you to write an adaptation of Peter Pan? 

To be honest, it wasn’t actually my idea to tell Peter Pan from the point of view of Wendy. It was Wendy Harris, the director of Tutti Frutti. Having said that, I saw the possibilities instantly. Wendy (Darling) is recruited as Mother to the lost boys and she takes to the role with gusto. It seemed to us that there was more available to a girl in the 21st century, so that’s what we explored. The first line of the book is, ‘All children, except one, grow up.’ and that’s what our play became about. When I was a child we were always being asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I’m not sure children these days get asked it in the same way. I never knew what to say. Most boys would say Engine Driver. Our Wendy fancies being an astronaut.

You’ve adapted a lot of ‘epic’ children’s stories, from The Railway Children to Cinderella. Have you ever approached a classic with the feeling ‘I can’t do this’. 

Funnily enough, I recently approached Alice in Wonderland for Derby Theatre with the feeling I couldn’t do it, in fact, more than that, I thought it couldn’t be done. It’s full of wonderful characters, but no real story. And could you honestly say you know what it’s about? Well, I got my head down and I think I came up with a solution. I actually grew to really like the story. I have taken a few liberties. She falls into the story from our own time. And you’ll have to come to sit to find out what happens to her.

With these impressive tales come big, complex sets. Are you conscious of the production implications in the writing stage? 

When it comes to staging I always think that the most powerful tool is the audience’s imagination. I don’t know if I’m strange as a writer but I don’t picture stuff in my head. That way I’m always delightfully surprised. I don’t do many stage directions either. I allow the director and the designer to do their jobs. Most of them are really good at it. Mind you a director friend still laughs about the time I gave him a play with the direction, ‘All the walls fly away and the ocean flows in. Joshua swims with the dolphin.’! I have said sorry since.

Is there anything in this production that you’re particularly proud of? 

I am most proud in this show of the Mermaid’s song. It is as much thanks to Ivan who wrote the music, Holly who did the movement, Kate who designed their costumes and Wendy who staged it. Come and see it. It’s hilarious.

If you had the opportunity to write your own original script what would the key messages be for your audience?

This is a big question. For all sorts of reasons the original play for children is a rare thing these days. It’s worrying. Apparently it’s felt to be risky for children to go to the theatre to see something where they don’t know what they’re getting. Had that always been the case, Peter Pan, which was an original play, would not have existed. Somebody (parents, teachers, bookers, programmers) make the decisions as to what children can be allowed to see. I absolutely agree that the world is full of things that children need to be protected from, but not from plays about those things! Watching plays is one of the ways that we come to understand the world. Understanding the world is one of the most effective ways of protecting our children. So, I would happily write more plays about the world in which we, and our children, live. Bring it on.

Assuming that it is important for children to have ready access to the arts, what are your thoughts on how this might be achieved for all children, especially those who live in disadvantaged areas?

Access to the arts is like access to air, food, water, talking. At some time in the past 30 years the view has become common that the arts is some kind of optional extra, rather than the way in which humans make sense of the world around us. It’s not an option. It’s essential, for our social and mental health. I was very lucky. I was born at the start of the 50’s. Because of the arrival of the welfare state my family got a council house. And I got access to education, which took me right through to degree level. I also had access to a free library. These things, which should be given to all our children have been commercialised and commodified and taken away from ordinary people. If you can’t afford to pay for them, you can’t have them. It’s criminal theft.

If you could adapt any children’s story, what would it be?

The book I would like to adapt is The Family from One End St by Eve Garnett. Of all the early childhood classics, it’s the only one about a working class family. I love it.