Derbyshire actor Sean McKenzie
PUBLISHED: 09:07 19 October 2015 | UPDATED: 09:07 19 October 2015
credit in caption Derby Theatre
It's eight years since the premier of the theatrical phenomenon War Horse, Nigel Powlson meets Derbyshire actor Sean McKenzie who lists the epic show among his many acting credits
The stage production of War Horse has become a phenomenal success enjoyed by millions worldwide – and no actor has clocked up more performances in the runaway hit than Derbyshire’s Sean McKenzie.
Sean spent 18 months with the show touring the UK and Ireland and taking it to South Africa, where the ground-breaking puppets that have become the hallmark of the show were devised, for the first time.
The gruelling touring schedule was a test for the entire cast and crew but Sean managed never to miss a performance, clocking up 518 consecutive appearances, which he believes is as many as any other actor connected with War Horse.
Despite the hard work, he’s immensely proud of being part of a show that has won the hearts and minds of critics and audiences alike.
He says: ‘It’s a simple story of a boy and his horse but it’s quite brilliantly done. I remember seeing the puppets for the first-time and it’s breathtaking and that was seeing it from the back of the stage, not even the front.
‘It was a gruelling tour, I always say acting isn’t tough like digging roads but this tour really was like digging roads. Four people left and we had to re-rehearse and we all had understudy roles to learn and re-rehearse. It was 10am in the morning to 10pm at night, day after day. It takes its toll.’
Sean played a typical English vicar in the first half of the production and Sergeant Thunder after the interval.
‘He’s the only real comic part in the show and to make people laugh all around the country was great,’ says Sean. ‘I was quite nervous going to Dublin, where my father came from, to see how they would react to this typically British sergeant – a bit Arthur Lowe, Windsor Davies – but it worked everywhere. He also has a great line at the end of the play that brings the house down.’
War Horse enjoyed great audience reaction everywhere but Sean says taking it to South Africa was especially thrilling.
‘We spent three months in South Africa as that’s where Handspring Puppet Company (who created the life-size horses that are such a feature of the show) are based.
‘We did free shows for the township children, something that was very special and the way they reacted to the show will live with me forever. That was their first experience of theatre and their response was mind-blowing and the noise was unbelievable at the end of the show.
‘All the audiences in South Africa embraced it as they were proud of their puppet theatre company, who waived all their royalties to ensure it would happen out there. It’s now won all the awards over in South Africa as well. I know it’s an old cliché but the big thing for me was really seeing again the wonderful way theatre can bring people together and give them so much joy, wherever they are and however old they are. A great piece of theatre unites everybody.’
And everyone is astonished by the horses.
Sean says: ‘When you see the drawings, how the puppets are made, it’s incredible and when you see them come alive it’s amazing. It’s perhaps only the National Theatre where this show could have been created because nobody else in the country has the facilities and time to workshop a production like this.’
The production played to around a million people over the 18 months Sean was with it.
He says: ‘I was one of the very few members of the cast of 34 who didn’t miss a show. I doubt even the original cast have done as many performances. I am immensely proud of being part of it because shows like this don’t come along very often. War Horse is one of the biggest shows of all time. It’s on my CV now and that opens doors.’
Sean’s marathon stint without missing a show isn’t unusual for this actor though. ‘I have never missed a show in my life,’ he says. ‘Not school, college, drama school or any time since. I have done shows where I could barely walk, where I had virtually no voice – which includes The Wind in the Willows in Derby, where I was terribly croaky but, as I was playing Toad, it at least fitted with the character. I always say “if they are laughing, they can hear me”. Audiences also tend to get behind you if they know you are struggling.
‘I once had food poisoning for the last three shows of a run and I was throwing up in the wings and going back on. I have had blinding headaches, back aches, sprains, you just have to carry on. I understand the whole understudy thing but I don’t like to short change people. It wasn’t cheap to see War Horse and I feel you have to give them value for that money.’
The only downside of the long stint in War Horse for Sean was being away from the family home in Heage and having precious little time with sons Jude (13) and Gabe (10) and wife Heidi. The boys did get to see War Horse in Dublin, however, and loved it.
‘They are remarkable in how they cope and put up with me being away,’ says Sean. ‘I like to think they are proud of me as well. Heidi is massively supportive of me and my work.’
‘It’s tough to spend so long away from them but the 18 months flew by and now almost seems like a dream.’
Apart from Sean, there is another big connection between War Horse and Derbyshire, with award-winning folk musician John Tams providing the songs.
Sean says: ‘The music is beautiful and John’s songs are the glue of the piece and weave through the story and change the mood. I had a good chat with John on the first day of rehearsals. He was very inspiring in terms of what he said about it. He told me to remember that “the hands of the men, women and children are on your shoulder when you are doing this show, reminding you of the horrors of the First World War” and I have never forgotten that. I thought about it every night before I went on. Because it tells the story of the First World War beautifully and horrifically and you can’t fail to be moved by it.’
Derby theatre-goers will know Sean for many memorable performances going back two decades.
He says: ‘My main love has always been the theatre in Derby. I love it there. My first show was the Ayckbourn play Time of My Life in 1996. There was Up ‘n’ Under, a brilliant production of On the Piste and more recently The Snow Queen and The Wind in the Willows.’
Sean has also been regularly seen on TV – from 32 episodes of police series City Central in the late 1990s to more recent featured parts in the likes of Downton Abbey and Vera.
‘I have been very lucky,’ he says. ‘I went through a spell of doing quite a lot of TV and then a friend of mine rang me about a great play at the Garrick Theatre in Lichfield. It was Ladies Day by Amanda Whittington and I played six different characters. I hadn’t done anything like it for a couple of years and it reignited my love of theatre. I enjoyed nailing those characters and I thought “this is what I should be doing”. I changed agents and they got me so many auditions. I said to them – “you get me the auditions and I’ll get the jobs” because my strike rate is good.’
Indeed while most actors spend long periods looking for work, Sean is always busy. So what’s the secret?
‘Hard work and being well prepared,’ he said. ‘It’s your work and the audition is as tough as opening night. It’s like a footballer not warming up, you have to be ready. Every year there seem to be more and more actors. A lot of younger people want to do this rather than being plumbers or electricians, those traditional things, but they don’t always understand how hard you have to work at it. It can be 1am in the morning the night before an audition and you will know you still need to read that script again.
‘I was about 15 when I made my mind up that I wanted to be an actor and from then until I was 27 I never had a holiday. For 12 years all I did was work at little stepping stones, like getting into a good drama school (Sean went to RADA) and then getting my first good theatre job. I always put in that extra effort. I got a film with Michael Winterbottom, did my own Jackanory, which was extraordinary, I loved doing that as I had grown up with it.’
So would Sean encourage his own sons to follow in his footsteps?
‘I would – as long as they were willing to work hard. It’s not easy. Anyone can be average but who wants to be average? I would tell them to go for it, as long as they wanted to be the best they could be.’