By Shane and Clayton Jacobson, adapted for the stage by Steve Rodgers. Ensemble Theatre (NSW). Jan 15 – 27, 2021.

Reviewed : 20 January 2021

Photo : Prudence Upton

There was a special air of anticipation at the opening night of Kenny at the Ensemble. More than a normal opening night. Even more than the opening night of a new season. The before show buzz was louder, more excited – even with QR codes, masks, social distancing, hand sanitiser and a team of COVID captains taking temperatures and religiously cleaning and re-cleaning every handrail and counter.

Because this opening night was more than just an opening. It was an “opening up”! After almost a year “in the dark” as the result of weeks of lock down and months of lock out, speculation, ever-changing restrictions, financial uncertainty and difficult decision-making, the Ensemble was “open for business” again! And the company has gone about it in a totally safe, business-like – and very theatrical way!

Once past the sanitised check in, the theatre transforms to an event centre hosting the International Portable Sanitation Convention. Key-note speaker is Kenny Smythe from SPLASHdown Bathroom Rentals, last featured in the much-awarded screen play Kenny written by Clayton and Shane Jacobson. Tonight, Kenny is here in person to promote the plucky importance of plumbers and their worthy work. It’s Ted-style Talk complete with power point photos and words from the wise.

Designer Simone Romaniuk has brought convention centre cunning to the intimate stage. The colour-scheme is baby blue and pristine white. Tasteful promotional signs and pot plants frame centre stage and the big screen behind it. Projections of symbolic cisterns illuminate the vomitoria. Everything is fresh, clean, sanitised – somewhat different from the things Kenny has to deal with every day!

Steve Rodgers’ adaptation is just as funny and clever as the Jacobsons’ movie – and perhaps at times even a little more philosophical. Rodgers is an innovative writer who calls upon a diverse range of theatrical techniques to bring vitality and dimension to this one-man show. The simple form of storytelling is augmented with jokes, puns, audience participation, and asides. He intersperses the narrative with humour, tension, even a little pathos – enough, in the hands of a clever actor, to keep the audience attentive, entertained captivated … and on side.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Who better to do this than the versatile and very amiable Ben Wood. Padded up a little in overalls that don’t meet across the middle, a company polo shirt and cap, Wood brings Shane Jacobson’s original Kenny’s discerning charm to the live theatre stage. Wood creates a Kenny whose latent energy and charisma has immediate appeal. He grabs the audience with his lively manner, ever-present grin, bright eyes, self-deprecating manner, old world honesty …  and holds them captive for ninety minutes of toilet tales, poo patter and philosophical fun.

Director Mark Kilmurry uses every intimate possibility of the Ensemble stage in this production. Aided by Damien Cooper’s creative lighting – and the talent and experience of Wood himself – he moves Wood deftly around the stage and up and down stairs, where he stops him for a moment to speak more directly to audience members – before discretely moving him on. Whilst this appears random, it is carefully orchestrated to sustain interest and anticipation. In the talented hands of Ben Wood it is particularly effective.

This production brings the Ensemble and its company out of the dark days of the past few months with a bright and entertaining ‘bang’. Steve Rodgers, Mark Kilmurry, the designers, Ben Wood himself – and the team that are keeping the cast and audience safe – thoroughly deserve the standing ovation it received on opening night.