Mike Kenny is a leading British playwright specialising in theatre for young audiences; his adaptation of The Railway Children won an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment. His latest play, Underneath a Magical Moon, is a reimagining of Peter Pan as told by Wendy Darling, and the tutti frutti production is touring nationally from the beginning of October until the end of December.
As a reviewer of children’s theatre, I have seen and written about quite a few adaptations of Peter Pan and yet I am always excited when I hear about new productions. Why do you think that our fascination with J M Barrie’s story continues so long after it was first staged, and after so many versions of it have been created?
Peter Pan is a bona fide work of genius for children, maybe the first. You could do a PhD (probably someone has) on it. It takes the gender stereotypes warrior boy/motherly girl, and pushes them to the max. It interrogates them too. It creates Neverland, which is surely the landscape of childhood. It is full of glorious imagery. Just the single fact of Hook, the shadow parent figure, constantly pursued by the ticking clock inside the crocodile that will eventually eat him – Isn’t that genius? When we become a grown up, haven’t we all felt like that? The thing I particularly love about Peter Pan is the fact that it started life as a play, not a book. Can you name another? I don’t think I can.
Underneath a Magical Moon follows other recent productions in giving increased voice to the female characters (Wendy and Peter Pan at the RSC, the Welsh National Opera’s Peter Pan, Peter Pan at Polka Theatre last Christmas are just a few examples). What made you decide to write this play from Wendy’s perspective? And why do you think a focus on the feminine perspective has emerged?
The idea originally came from Wendy Harris, the artistic director of tutti frutti, and I immediately jumped on it. Although the archetypes in the play still work over 100 years later, a lot has happened in the world, particularly for women. The opening words of the book are, ‘All children, except one, grow up.’ My play explores feelings about growing up. Women can now expect to be a lot more than a mother. Having said that, expanding the possibilities, has also expanded the complications. At the same time, growing up for boys isn’t as straight forward either, and some boys would rather take the Peter Pan option and never grow up.
Apart from writing the play through Wendy’s eyes, have you made many other major changes to the Peter Pan story? Is it nerve-wracking to alter something so well-known?
It’s very nerve racking. My first stab at the play was a bit dull, frankly. So, I went back to the drawing board and just trusted the story more. In the original there’s not a lot of introspection, and that’s why it works so well. Ours is different in that it’s shorter, with a smaller cast. It’s intended for a younger audience than the original. There’s swashbuckling, but not as much violence. And I have completely cut the ‘Redskins’. It doesn’t sit well with me, and needs another play to look at that. In our version we have a lot of fun with the mermaids.
You have been a successful playwright for many years – has your creative process and style developed slowly during your career, or do you recall certain specific points that led to change?
It’s hard to get perspective on changes in your own process, I feel. I have been very fortunate. I still work all the time. Certainly, the world of children’s theatre has changed radically. When I began, there were far more companies, particularly companies who worked in schools. There was no national curriculum and testing didn’t have the stranglehold it has now. It was possible to just write a ‘play for children’ which didn’t have to fit neatly into the curriculum. Education and art feels as though it has parted company. Meanwhile, theatre outside of a school setting has had to become much safer. I love the fact that I have been able to work on a wide variety of stages. Things like Underneath a Magical Moon are exciting. The casualty, in the current climate, is the original play for children. For me, it’s a huge shame. I would love to be in the position where I could say, come to see a play just because it’s by me. In the current climate there would be no Peter Pan. No theatre company could take the risk on an unknown title.
What is it that sustains your interest in writing plays for young people, especially now you’ve written so many?
Childhood is infinitely fascinating to me, maybe because my own was a bit odd. The way I tend to think about it is this. I have three children of my own. They’re now grow up, but there’s 14 years between the oldest and the youngest. Every evening we’d sit down to eat and talk. No subject was banned, but everyone must be included in the conversation. That’s how I feel about work for children. I like to include everyone in the conversation.
Do you watch a lot of children’s theatre yourself, and if so, what sort of productions do you most enjoy?
Oh my goodness. That’s a hard one. I don’t think I see enough these days. I tend to be involved in my own work. The most exciting piece I saw recently was The Hamilton Complex. It was a piece from Belgium with thirteen 13 year old girls and a body builder. I think this question has pushed me to get out more.
What are you next working on next?
I’m currently working on a new version of Alice in Wonderland for Derby Theatre, about which I’m very excited. But I also seem to be drifting away from these shores. I’ve done a play for a company in Ireland. I’m working on a piece about Partition for India, and I have just got back from Australia where I was in discussions for a new play.
Underneath a Magical Moon is at York Theatre Royal from the 6-22 Oct and then tours until the end of December – you can find more details here.
Read our previous interview with Mike Kenny here.
Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.