Adapting classic children’s literature for the stage – by playwright Mike Kenny

Playwright Mike Kenny

Mike Kenny

Adapting classic children’s novels for the stage is no easy feat. But British playwright Mike Kenny has proven that when it works, it can go down like a treat. With a string of roaring successes over the last two years, including current Waterloo Station Theatre smash hit The Railway Children (recently nominated for the Evening Standard‘s ‘Best Night Out’ Theatre Award), last year’s The Wind in the Willows and this year’s Peter Pan for York Theatre Royal. Here, he reflects on the timeless quality of a ‘golden era’ in British children’s literature where his inspiration stems from…

Rob Angell (Father) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

Rob Angell (Father) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

‘Career’ has always felt like a good word for my life as a playwright, in so much that it has been like a plummet down a mountainside without the benefit of brakes, or steering. I’ve never really been in control of it and often a bit hazy about what’s coming next. One thing that has consistently characterised it is that the majority of my work has been for children and their families, though sometimes that has meant writing for teens in youth clubs, and sometimes for the very young, nursery age and under, sometimes working with contemporary material and at others with traditional tales and fairy stories.

Sarah Quintrell (Roberta) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

Sarah Quintrell (Roberta) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

Of late it has taken an increasingly fascinating turn. It began when Damien Cruden, the director of the York Theatre Royal, asked me to think about adapting The Railway Children. 

The Railway Children was a revelation to me. It really was. I know people loved the film, but I confess I didn’t. I was 18 when it came out. Its longing for the steam age and its lasting shining sun made me slightly sick. And although Bernard Cribbins is fantastic, Mrs Perks’ comedy Yorkshire accent put the working classes somewhere back in the thirties. It was about posh kids, again. Yawn. The doctor appeared to live in the Parsonage museum in Haworth. Bizarre, did nobody think we’d notice? I didn’t hate it, but I thought it was sentimental tosh and completely irrelevant. It was 1968 for God sake. Think of what was happening in the world! When it was proposed to me for adaptation I was not keen. Then I actually read the book.

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS production shot

The Wind in the Willows (2011). Photo: Dublinstones photography

Humble pie was duly eaten. The book is great and reads today as fresh and relevant (bad word I know, but it is) as then. I loved it and I loved working on it. I have since been given credit for all sorts of things which are actually there in the original book. Basking in its glow, I became fascinated by other Edwardian children’s classics. I went on to adapt The Wind in the Willows, and this year did a version of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan (both premiered at York Theatre Royal). They were all originally written within a very few years of each other in that strange time between the end of the long reign of Victoria and the start of the First World War, which swept it all away and with it the generation that read those books as children. There is a moment in Peter Pan (cut from the Disney film and the recent movie) when Wendy says ‘we hope our sons will die like English gentlemen’, and we watch the Lost Boys walk the plank singing the National Anthem. In the play where Peter says that death would be an awfully big adventure, it really is a chilling moment. The play grasps a truth about its time and unknowingly predicts an imminent future. Similarly, The Wind in the Willows seems to turn a cool gaze on the near future, when you consider Toad’s obsession with the internal combustion engine. The addiction to motors, such a rarity then, and such a profound threat to the natural world now, becomes the heart of the book. Messing about with boats doesn’t stand a chance.

The Wind in the Willows, 2011 production shot

The Wind in the Willows (2011). Photo: Dublinstones photography

It was a golden age for children’s art. I’m so envious. There was a collection of original works for children that put them at the centre of the action and both entertained and had prophetic force. The train and the car were much the Internet of their day: they changed the world forever, and these writers incorporate them with such ease in forms that embrace realism and fantasy. I suppose I feel that we struggle to match those days, particularly in theatre. So maybe I’m finally trying to influence the onward plummet of my work. Peter Pan was a theatre piece before it was anything else. It, like the other pieces of its time, entered our culture and has never been out of print in the hundred plus years since. I am now minded to take up the gauntlet and try to write something for our own time, which will hopefully have the same longevity. In the meantime, I’ve got my sights set on Little Lord Fauntleroy.

The Railway Children (jacket)

The Railway Children (£8.99)

York Theatre Royal’s production of The Railway Children is currently running at Waterloo Station Theatre in London to January 2012 – ‘Mike Kenny’s adaptation shows his mastery of playwriting for children and families… adults and children alike are enthralled by the clever mix of imagination and reality’ Financial Times – click here for more information and to purchase tickets. The NHB publication of The Railway Children is available now, click here to purchase your copy for just £8 with free UK P&P – add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

The Wind in the Willows will publish late November 2011. To pre-order your copy for just £8 with free UK P&P please email your required quantity and contact details to and NHB will be in touch shortly!

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