For as long as I can remember I have loved the film version of ‘Oliver!’ In fact, if I could only watch one film ever again, it would be that one. The acting and general ensemble performances are marvellous to observe and of course those wondrous songs from Lionel Bart never fail to hit the spot. Inspired graft from all concerned. I have also found in years gone by, that it acts as a fine hangover cure for me too.
Sadly, I was too young to see the stage version of this masterpiece, but for many a year, I have read and studied the background story of it whenever that has appeared in newsprint or on television.
That would be where I first heard the name of the focus of today’s blog, namely theatre designer Sean Kenny. His work in theatre and film took in a multitude of design roles such as scenic, costume, lighting as well as overall director on a few occasions. It is said that in his time Kenny was simply revolutionary, and he changed the way set design was thought of forever.
The man himself was born in County Tipperary Ireland in 1929 and trained as an architect, first in Dublin and then in America, on a scholarship in the offices of the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright. Indeed he was part of the team that worked on the iconic Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Upon returning to the UK, like a lot of those who later found fame in the theatre; Kenny first worked with the maverick Joan Littlewood of the Theatre Royal Stratford East. She was very much the outsider of the theatre world, but she was also responsible for some legendary productions and finding local talent to both write and act in them, such as Frank Norman and Bart, and James Booth and Barbara Windsor respectively.
Kenny’s first major work there was for the plays of Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan from 1957, leading to his commission to design the set for Oliver! at the New London Theatre in 1960. He came up with a revolutionary and clever ideas comprising house interiors, a workhouse, bridges and stairways, which were a triumph.
The show went on to have 23 curtain calls on its opening night. Lionel Bart was pushed on stage by Sir Donald Albery who had bought the rights to stage the musical. All Bart could muster as he stood there milking the applause was ‘May the good Dickens forgive us.’ The show would run for 2,618 performances in London and a further 774 on Broadway in New York.
Kenny never looked back. From then on, he was at the forefront of any creative process he was involved in, being in meetings from the get-go with the playwright and director and it was said his scenery was considered as much a part of any play as any of the actors. Theatre impresario Cameron McIntosh later revealed that ‘a lot of the original 1960 production of ‘Oliver!’ had been written during rehearsal to accompany the working of Sean Kenny’s set.’
For each production, he would construct a frame, the size of which depended on the budget available. From that frame emerged, different levels for each piece of scenery required. Often these were three-dimensional settings incorporating separate acting areas, allowing the action to flow from one location to the next without unnecessary interruptions for any change of scene.
This use of modern technology in amongst the ancient tales told on stage led the way to the success of many a British musical that followed in years to come.
Other notable successes for Kenny himself would include ‘Lock Up Your Daughters’ in 1959. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Stratford upon Avon in 1961, ‘Stop the World, I Want to Get Off’ on Broadway in 1962, ‘Blitz!’ also from 1962, ‘Maggie May in 1965, ‘The Roar of the Grease-Paint, the Smell of the Crowd’ in 1965, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ in 1968, which he wrote, produced, designed the scenes for and directed and ‘Juno and the Paycock’ from 1973, which he once again directed.
He also redesigned The Old Vic Theatre in London, when the National Theatre Company took up residence there in 1963. All in all, he was involved in 32 major shows in ten years, picking up the 1963 ‘Tony Award’ for Best Scenic Designer for ‘Oliver!’ and a 1965 Tony Awards nomination, for Best Scenic Designer for ‘The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd.’
As a consequence of all this, he had found himself very much in the eye of the cultural hurricane that was the 1960s. For example he was a founding member and very much a regular at ‘The ‘Establishment’ the satirical comedy cabaret club alongside comedian and its owner Peter Cook.
Kenny had married Judy Huxtable, to whom it is said he was spectacularly unfaithful, so she left left him to marry Cook.
Kenny later lived with the actress Judy Geeson until his untimely death aged just 43, following a heart attack and brain haemorrhage.
Geeson said later ‘Sean had an unusual combination of abilities: he had the creativity to dream up a design. But he also had a brilliant engineer’s brain so he didn’t only dream it, he knew how to make it.’
Sadly he didn’t get long to show us what he would have come up with next, but if nothing else, we’ll always have ‘Oliver!’ and personally, that will do for me.
The Mumper of SE5