Nobody expected Kenny to take the world by storm. And yet the Shane Jacobson-led mockumentary went on to become one of the most beloved Australian films of all time. It tells the tale of a put-upon plumber trying to win the respect of his father, the esteem of his peers, and perhaps even a little love for himself, all the while trying to be the best purveyor of portaloos he can be.
Co-written and directed by Jacobson’s brother, Clayton, Kenny struck a chord with movie audiences and critics alike, and the amiable, unassuming prince of plungers earned a place in the Australian cultural firmament. Now, almost 15 years on from this first flush of success, the story is headed to a new medium: theatre.
It’s been re-imagined as a one-man play starring Ben Wood (Top of the Lake: China Girl), which will debut at Ensemble Theatre this Sydney Festival 2021, running from January 15 to February 27. Funnily enough, it was Wood’s close resemblance to original Kenny that first spurred the project. The actor regaled director Mark Kilmurry with an amusing recollection of the time a prominent theatre director chatted to him at the Helpmann Awards before realising that the man before her was not, in fact, Shane Jacobson.
“It’s always been a running gag that I certainly get mistaken for him a fair bit,” Wood laughs. “And I’ve spoken to friends of his about it as well, and he seems to get inversely mistaken. So they’ll see me on an ad or something and they’ll think it’s him.”
Kilmurry, artistic director of the Ensemble Theatre, was so struck by the anecdote that he decided to find out if the Jacobson brothers were amenable to Kenny taking to the stage, with Wood stepping into the iconic character’s filthy wellington boots. As it turns out, they were, and playwright Steve Rodgers was tapped to adapt the stage play. But there was a problem; having transcribed the film, Rodgers discovered there’s less than half an hour of dialogue in the whole thing. And that wasn’t the only hurdle to overcome.
“Probably the hardest thing about the job, for me as the writer, was trying to move the film into a one-person show,” Rodgers elaborates. “It’s incredibly difficult when the key relationships in the film are with his father, his son, and Jackie, the air hostess that he meets. So there’s a love story, there’s a story about parenting and wanting to be respected, and there’s a story about trying to live up to his father’s expectations.”
Rodgers had to figure out how to convey the impact of key lines from the film, like Kenny’s father declaring, irately, “I didn’t put you through school, so you could be a glorified turd burglar.”
Ultimately, this necessitated some major structural changes to the source material. “I tried to pluck out the tensions in the script, and then work out how they could live on stage,” Rodgers says. In the 2006 film, one of the key sequences involves Kenny travelling to Nashville in the US – the first time he’s ever left Melbourne. On stage, this becomes a framing device. “So, when you see the show in Sydney, you’re actually an audience member attending the expo and Kenny’s the keynote speaker.”
How that will sit with fans of the film is a matter of conjecture, but one person intimately involved with the show has never seen the source material – star Ben Wood.
“I’m choosing not to,” he explains. “I’ve seen enough clips and titbits and stuff like that, so I kind of know the heart and soul of the character, and Stevie’s done a really good adaptation. I’m shying away from watching the film in detail because I don’t want to do an impression. I think the source material is strong enough.”
Wood worked with Clayton Jacobson on the second season of Top of the Lake. “I think Shane’s an incredible performer and a really good actor,” he says. “They’re just both fiercely talented, really down-to-earth Aussie guys that pulled themselves up. They made Kenny on the smell of an oily rag and it became a cultural icon. So I feel a great sense of pride in being given permission to bring it to the stage and hopefully start a whole second life for this character.”
Wood says the plumber’s outlook is a meditation on kindness. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world, and I feel like this is a really good time to be diving back into what it means to be hardworking, good and generous. And obviously, sanitation is pretty important as well.”