Review By Carly Fisher
I must be one of the few Aussies who was blissfully unaware of the 2006 mockumentary come cult-classic Australian film, Kenny. Centred around a Melbourne plumber working for a portaloo company, Kenny Smyth, who, quite simply, just loves his job, it wasn’t until after I saw the show and started telling people about what I had seen that I realised how in the dark I had been. Apparently, whether or not you’ve seen the film, you’ve heard about Kenny!
Knowing this information after-the-fact, the Ensemble’s decision to commission a stage adaptation of Clayton and Shane Jacobson’s film suddenly made a lot more sense! And, whilst I may not have known at the time that the audience was responding to a character already beloved to them, it was great to see how well received this simple Aussie story was.
For the other 3 Australians who, like me, have never heard of Kenny, let me bring you up to speed. Kenny Smyth is a happy-go-lucky plumber working in Melbourne who is truly content doing his job, a job, he admits, that not many of us would like to do. But that doesn’t diminish his spirit at all, instead, he focuses on the opportunities this career has afforded him and the chance that he has to be there for people, even at their worst of times.
I believe that the film follows Kenny’s first opportunity to travel overseas when his boss sends him to an international conference/expo in Nashville, TN. The stage production picks up years later and Kenny tells us of his many international expeditions since then and what he has learnt along the way. His opportunity to explore the world, and importantly, the world of toilets, is a sign to him of his own success, success that inspires him to continue the work that he is doing.
Wherever Kenny started off in the film, I get the impression that he has really climbed the ranks as audience members at the Ensemble theatre walk in to find Kenny Smyth as the keynote speaker at the Portable Sanitation convention in Sydney (IPSC 2021). His speech topic is simple - why he loves his job - but as we watch Kenny deliver this, at times a little off track, speech we see that this is more than just a job for him, it’s a passion and, most importantly, it’s a way to keep grounded in what is most important to him in life.
Whilst I completely understood the choice for this one man show to be delivered as a keynote speech, to be honest, it felt overly simplistic to me for an Ensemble theatre show. Though a good device for encouraging audience engagement and participation, the trope wore off on me as I waited for the next bit of the story or play to progress. The closest taste of this that I got was a meaningful realisation during a job interview on stage that Kenny comes to - he doesn’t need more than what he has because what he has makes him genuinely happy.
The opening night audience was alive with laughter - you could tell that people were genuinely happy to know what happened next for this unlikely Aussie hero that they remember from the film. A word of advice, you have to be very in tune with your sense of toilet humour to roar through this show…again, something that everyone else probably already knew but I was left to learn on the spot. It’s not my personal kind of humour but there were definitely plenty of lines to have a good laugh at.
Whilst the show is undoubtably a comedy, where the show most impressed me were in these beautiful little lines and tidbits that Kenny delivered about true happiness, finding your purpose, and more than anything, never looking down at the person next to you. It’s sad to say, but this is such an important reminder and after a year of watching our doctors and nurses truly step up to the front line, it was FANTASTIC to see a show blatantly remind people to be grateful to those who do the tough jobs, the messy jobs…the jobs that most of us don’t want to do, something that Kenny even confirmed by having us raise our hands.
To that end, there was one part of the show that I walked out thinking the most about, and will continue to think about for days to come. Kenny talks about one of his heroes in the industry, the head of a large portaloo firm in New York who, he tells us, sent something like 500 portaloos down to the 9/11 site immediately after the attack. He laments that no one thinks about this but this is an instance where plumbers and portaloo technicians truly responded on the front line. He makes a comment along the lines of, ‘you never notice when we are there, but you definitely notice when we are not,’ which really made an impact on me and certainly left me thinking long after the final bows.
Also impactful were little lines scattered throughout the play that reminded us that, though Kenny never asks for our pity or sympathy, he is not immune to the mistreatment of himself and those in his industry either. Lines such as “people think because you deal with shit, you are shit,” strike such a chord. These fast moving but highly thought provoking moments are a true credit to the writing.
Ben Wood takes on the role of Kenny and does so with a compassion and authenticity that really makes you root for Kenny from the moment he comes out on stage. I don’t feel that this show had any major emotional arc to comment on, but those more somber moments that the script does dive into, were achieved by Wood with the same precision and dedication to the character as the fun moments of great jokes or audience engagement. Wood’s wit is apparent too, evident through the many moments he has the opportunity to improvise and play with the audience - I was definitely impressed with his sense of comedy and timing. As a performer, Wood’s great talent in this show is in making the audience, who from receiving name tags upon walking in know that there will be audience participation, feel comfortable, welcome and safe. This may seem an overstated fact but anyone who has ever been in an audience where participation was called upon can support me on this…no one really likes audience participation, in fact, most people are terrified of it. Wood tackles this aspect of the show with such care, clever comedy and respect for the audience that he guides us through this participation perfectly, and in return, has audience jumping up to get involved.
Steve Rodgers’ script is, for the most part, well executed although for me, there are some tangents that I didn’t think added to the script and instead, made the show feel a little long. Again, I acknowledge that as someone who doesn’t love toilet humour, this is likely a personal feeling as for other audience members the 80 minutes might have flown by. Even not loving toilet gags, I will say that Rodgers has very cleverly written about every toilet pun and synonym into this script which only served to make Kenny more loveable as he rolled through his Rolodex of dad jokes. Props too to Rodgers for finding a way to include the history of the toilet, as well as a slideshow of the most impressive and expensive toilets out there within the script…I imagine those to be ideas that came up whilst writing that really needed a spot in which to sit and this is something that Rodgers has done very well. These little moments serve as the perfect reminder to us that Kenny does not see this is a job, but as a career and a life.
Most importantly Rodgers has achieved a lightness that is still spotted with beautiful life lessons that feels very appropriate for 2021.
This show is not what you expect to find at the Ensemble theatre - it carries more of a comedy festival feel than a typical Ensemble piece, but all the same, I do hope that their regular audiences find great joy in seeing something a little bit different to return to the theatre with.
If you saw the movie, you should see this show, I think you’re going to love it.
And for those other few Aussies who haven’t seen the film yet, yes, there are some parts that will make a little less sense, or rather, hold less significance to you, but you’ll have a fun night at the theatre all the same and it’s a very easy story to pick up on!
A cute, light way to return to the Ensemble theatre that is still riddled with important life lessons that we all should make time to hear.
Photo Credit: Prudence Upton