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Shropshire childhood lay foundations for my plays, says playwright Mike

By Mark Andrews | Oswestry | Theatre & Comedy | Published:

As a young man, Mike Kenny couldn't wait to move away from Shropshire.

Half a century on the award-winning playwright reflects on an idyllic childhood which gave him so many ideas for the characters in his plays.

"Looking back, it was the perfect childhood for somebody who wanted to write children's plays," says the 68-year-old, who grew up in Oswestry. His adaptation of The Railway Children won an Olivier Award, his play The Vultures Song was this nominated for the Best Play for Young Audiences category at the Writers' Guild awards, and he has been included in the Independent's Top 10 Living Playwright's list.

And he says growing up on a close-knit council estate in the Shropshire market town gave him an insight into life which would serve him well when it came to writing for children later in life.

"My grandparents and then my parents were caretakers at the memorial hall in town, we lived on the council estate in College Road," he says.

"I wouldn't call them pillars of the community, but everybody knew how they were.

"And because everyone knew my parents, it meant I couldn't do anything without my parents getting to hear about it."

The writer, born Michael Wood, now lives in York, but his cousins John and Peter Thomas are still in the areaw.

He recalls a constant stream of visitors to the family home, big personalities who would shape many of the characters in his plays.

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"My mum had quite a big family, with lots of brothers and sisters," he says.

"My Auntie Lyn has been in virtually every play I have written.

"Sometimes she's an old woman, sometimes she's a kid, sometimes she's a man.

"Her name was Lynda Thomas, she was an auxiliary nurse at the orthopaedic, she lived into her 90s, and I can still hear her all the time.

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"She was very outgoing and great fun, she would say anything to anybody."

His old headmaster at Oswestry Boys' High School has made the odd appearance as well.

"His name was Alf Exton, he was quite a ferocious figure, and scary as well, he's got into a couple of my plays," says Mike.

Mike landed a place at the school when he was just 10, having taken his 11-plus a year early, but has mixed views about this.

"It was the way things happened in the 50s and 60s, if you were a working-class kid and were reasonably bright, you got sent to the grammar school.

"It did open new doors to me, but what I'm less happy about is the way it shut other doors behind me.

"You get a social upgrade, but it's like you are leaving your life on the council estate behind you.

“My mum had previously cleaned the houses of the boys I found myself in the same class with. Their parents were either lawyers or doctors, so it didn’t make for a great mix. You were taught to believe that you had earned the opportunity to be in this privileged position, but the truth was you felt neither fish nor fowl. In order to fit in, boys like me gradually denied a whole element of their culture and their background."

Yet while his childhood in Shropshire would have a profound impact on his work, he never felt destined for life as a writer as a child.

"I had nothing to do with the theatre when I was a child," he says.

"Like a lot of youngsters growing up in small towns back then, one of the first things I wanted to do when I was old enough was to move away.

"I wanted to see the big, wide world, and I moved down to London."

After dropping out of a law degree, he got a job working for the Post Office, and began spending his spare time watching theatre productions. After enrolling at teacher training college, he found himself working in the education department of Leeds Playhouse Theatre, taking new works into different schools. It was during this time that he realised he had a talent for working with children, and a knack of knowing what it took to keep them captivated.

"The thing I like about children is that they are a very honest audience," says Mike.

"They won't politely clap if a production is very bad, they will let you know."

Many of his works have involved pushing the boundaries, and putting fresh twists on old favourites. One of his more ground-breaking moves was casting a real-life person with learning difficulties as Lenny in a production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

He says it was the actor himself who gave him the idea.

"Kevin – to my great shame I can't remember his last name – said 'why don't people like me get the chance to play those roles', and I thought there was no good answer to that," he says.

"You had actors who would use the character to show off their talents, and they sometimes won Oscars, but the people who have that life are not given the opportunity."

Mike says casting Kevin in the role was not an easy option – he had to get permission from the Steinbeck estate to simplify the script so Kevin could remember it, but he says it gave the play a new dimension.

"When Kevin originally played the role, the fact that he shared experiences with Lenny didn’t mean he wasn’t performing," he says.

"But he was bringing a reality to the role that existed in a place beyond performance."

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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