Sean McKenzie: a part in a show regarded as the biggest in the world
The name may not be instantly recognisable, unless you’re a committed theatre fan. But Derbyshire actor Sean McKenzie has landed a part in a show that’s regarded as the biggest in the world.
That’s not all. He’s been signed up to an 18-month contract which will take him to some of the largest and best theatres in the UK before he heads off to South Africa next Christmas.
Sean McKenzie has two roles in the National Theatre’s touring production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse which has been playing to sell-out crowds and looks like breaking box-office records everywhere it goes.
The Heage-based actor disclosed how his agent rang and told him to go for an audition for War Horse. Sean assumed it was for the West End production. It was only later that he found out he was not heading for London.
“They sent me the script for Sgt Thunder and I thought ‘I’ve got to do it, it’s a fantastic part’. So I auditioned and within half an hour of auditioning they rang my agent and said they wanted me to do it.”
War Horse takes audiences on an extraordinary journey from the fields of rural Devon to the trenches of France during World War I. Life-sized puppets bring breathing, galloping, charging horses to life on stage.
Sean believes the show he has joined is the definitive production of War Horse which has been running for almost five years in the West End and started off at the National Theatre in 2007.
“Over time the script has been re-moulded, reshaped and things have changed. This is possibly the best version of it.
Heart of gold
“It’s a huge cast, 34 of us plus about 15 technicians. We get along so well as a group. The reviews have been unbelievable – there’ve been standing ovations every night.”
Sean looks on Sgt Thunder as a typical, old-fashioned sergeant major: “He tends to shout at a lot of people but actually he’s got a heart of gold. He’s the man responsible for looking after the troops in the trenches.
“I suppose it’s the one real comedy role in the show. That’s very nice for me because comedy is one of my major skills.”
In the first half of War Horse, Sean has a small role as a priest. Virtually all the actors have two or three parts to fulfil in the ensemble production.
Pinnacle of 20-year career
“It’s the biggest show the National Theatre has ever produced. Aesthetically there’s something very beautiful and unique about this show. I don’t think you’ll ever see another show like it, quite frankly.”
Sean regards War Horse as the pinnacle of a 20-year career which spans theatre, television and film.
“Within two minutes of the show starting you’re completely hooked. It draws you in like no other show. It’s magical in the true sense of the word. It really touches people and connects with people. I guess that’s why it’s been such a huge, worldwide hit.”
Sean McKenzie was born in 1970 in Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire. He went to St Bede’s High School in Lytham where he saw Stephen Tompkinson – later to star in television programmes such as Wild At Heart and Ballykissangel – acting in a play. From then on Sean knew his future was in show business.
Accepted for RADA
His first proper role was in a play by John Gardiner called Dracula Spectacula. He played a drunken Irish pilot who flew everyone to Transylvania.
“It was very memorable because I got a lot of laughs and I was the tender age of 11. It was like the shining light on the road to Damascus – I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
He was among 3,000 people who auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in one year and was one of 29 who were accepted. He was able to go thanks to a grant from Lancashire county council.
While still at RADA he auditioned for long-running ITV programme The Bill. There he met fellow Derbyshire actor Kevin Lloyd who played DC Tosh Lines and Simon Rouse who was top-ranking detective Jack Meadows.
“Other than a few moments here and there, I’ve pretty much worked almost consistently over the past 20 years.”
“They were both very kind and helpful to me because it was an induction of fire,” says Sean.
“In my first theatre job I played Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then I landed a great role in (another TV series) London’s Burning. I’ve never looked back.
“Other than a few moments here and there, I’ve pretty much worked almost consistently over the past 20 years. For actors it’s an achievement to survive in this business, let alone keep working. I feel very lucky. Hopefully it’ll continue for another 20 years.”
Sean settled in Derbyshire after meeting his wife Heidi who is now press and marketing officer at Derby Theatre. They have two sons.
“Derby Theatre holds a special place in my heart. I’ve done a lot over the last 15 years and hopefully one day I’ll be able to go back and work there again.”
“I didn’t want to be in London any more so it just seemed a natural progression, really. It wasn’t planned, it just happened. I suppose you could call my life a series of happy accidents!”
Sean has built up an impressive CV over the past two decades. The previous longest job he had was a nine-month stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, again in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He performed in Stratford, London, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.
War Horse is his third engagement with the National Theatre. Several years ago he was in a play called Two Weeks With The Queen which was directed by Alan Ayckbourn and last Christmas he appeared alongside award-winning American actor John Lithgow in Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Magistrate.
The previous two Christmases Sean was actually at home as he appeared in The Snow Queen and The Wind In The Willows at Derby Theatre.
Regular theatregoers may remember that he trod the boards at the old Derby Playhouse in plays including John Godber’s outrageously funny On the Piste in 1992, Godber’s Up ‘n’ Under in 2002 and Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! in 2005.
“Derby Theatre holds a special place in my heart. I’ve done a lot over the last 15 years and hopefully one day I’ll be able to go back and work there again,” says Sean.
He has also worked extensively in television, securing roles in programmes such as Holby City, Shameless, Casualty, Dalziel and Pascoe, EastEnders and Heartbeat.
In 2010 he played telephone engineer Mr Bromidge in Downton Abbey and towards the end of last year played a quiz master in a pub in the series Truckers which was filmed in Nottingham. Coincidentally it starred Stephen Tompkinson.
So how has he managed to keep working while many other actors can have long spells of unemployment? Sean feels his versatility is the key.
“I think that’s where my strength lies. I find it quite easy to slip into somebody else’s shoes. I probably feel more comfortable doing that than being myself sometimes.
Away from home
“I’m good with accents, good at physically changing my body, I can do comedy and straight stuff. I’ve been very lucky. In this business you’ve got to be able to adapt.”
But having a long contract does have its disadvantages: “It means being away from home a lot which is difficult when you’ve got a family but you’ve got to pay the bills and the taxman, so you keep going. War Horse is wonderful – you can’t pass up jobs like this.”
Negotiations are under way for War Horse to transfer to Japan and Amsterdam, although the actors on the tour don’t know yet whether their contracts will be extended.
Sean is convinced the show will go on for several years yet. Some people who’ve seen War Horse in Salford were experiencing theatre for the first time.
“We’ve had so much good feedback,” says Sean. “That’s why you do it in a way – you want to inspire writers, novelists, painters, directors, actors and graphic designers because it will fire children’s and young people’s imaginations and it might inspire them to go out and be something else.”
* This article appeared in the January 2015 issue of Country Images magazine