Academic ~ Playwright ~ Teacher
James Kenworth is a Playwright and Academic at Middlesex University. His plays include ‘verse-prose’ plays Johnny Song and Gob, the black comedy Polar Bears; issue-led plays Everybody’s World (Elder Abuse), Dementia’s Journey (Dementia); plays for young people/schools, The Last Story in the World; and a Newham-based quartet of site-specific/responsive plays: When Chaplin Met Gandhi, Revolution Farm, A Splotch of Red: Keir Hardie in West Ham and Alice in Canning Town.
Gob starred former Take That star, Jason Orange, and was Time Out and What's On Critics Choice at The King’s Head Theatre, Islington. In a radical and subversive departure from his boyband image Orange played a 'homeless techno revolutionary in crustie combats and a grubby Che Guevara T-shirt'. Its revival at Edinburgh Fringe Festival earned the distinction of two five-star reviews from Three Weeks and The List, and was included in the feature "Editor's Highlights of the Fringe".
Kenworth was one of eight playwrights selected to take part in the inaugural Tamasha/Mulberry School Writers Attachment Scheme, created and taught by playwright and Tamasha Theatre Company co-Artistic Director Fin Kennedy. The scheme has since become Schoolwrights, the UK's first playwrights-in-schools training scheme, which uses Mulberry School as a training base for other writers.
Kenworth received special permission from the George Orwell Estate to write a contemporary re-imagining of Animal Farm, retitled Revolution Farm, performed on an inner city farm in East London, which The Independent’s Paul Taylor described as a ‘terrifically powerful update…highly recommended' and British Theatre Guide wrote 'If Animal Farm is on the curriculum this term, what better way to introduce it?'
Kenworth's raising awareness play, Dementia’s Journey, won the 2015 University of Stirling International Dementia Award in the category: Dementia & the Arts.
His critically acclaimed series of localist-focussed shows, rooted in Newham’s history, culture and people, have been performed in non-traditional, but site-sympathetic locations in Newham, featuring a ‘mixed economy’ casting of young people and professional actors. The plays range from radical reimaginings/remixes of classic literature to dramatizing Newham’s rich political heritage. Kenworth has originated and devised a Pro-Localist approach to cultural engagement in the borough, in which the plays were partnered and supported by a nexus of funders, partners and stakeholders. These include well-known, local, grassroots organizations and charities, which have substantial roots and ties in the community; local primary and secondary schools; and academics and researchers from Middlesex University.
In 2021, Kenworth was awarded Doctor of Philosophy by Public Works for his thesis, Public Spaces, Public Words: PUBLIC SPACES, PUBLIC WORDS: Contextualising Pro-Localist, Site-Local, New Writing and its roots in a community’s history, culture and people, which explored his creative practice as a playwright and investigated the efficacy of the use of Pro-Localism in a specific urban environment and addressed the question: 'How can iconic literary classics and historical drama/biography be rewritten and ‘localized’ to reflect a sense of a place, people and culture? When Chaplin Met Gandhi is published by small publishing house TSL Publications. A Splotch of Red is published by New Internationalist's Workable, a new publishing imprint dedicated to trade unions and organized workers. Revolution Farm and Alice in Canning Town are published by independent UK publishing house Playdead Press.
The Newham Plays have been filmed, edited and produced by Middlesex University’s Media Department’s BA Film students and can be viewed on Vimeo (upon request).
Kenworth's plays have been reviewed in The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer, British Theatre Guide and Eastern Eye.
Created, produced and written by James Kenworth, a long-term resident of Newham, East London, the Newham Plays are a series of localist-focussed plays rooted in Newham’s history, culture and people. Performed in site-sympathetic locations in Newham, East London, they feature a ‘mixed economy’ casting of young people and professional actors. The series has originated a Pro-Localist approach to cultural engagement, in which the plays are partnered and supported by a nexus of local funders, partners and stakeholders. It has given 250 young people from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to engage in the arts and enhanced cultural provision in the area; playing a role in addressing historically low levels of cultural engagement in the borough. Participation in the plays and associated activities has developed the skills of the young people involved, built confidence and boosted self-belief. Additionally, activity has benefited local organisations, raising awareness of key sites/ venues in Newham and the work of local charities.
Each production has presented its own opportunities and challenges. When Chaplin Met Gandhi (2012) told the true story of Gandhi meeting Charlie Chaplin in Canning Town, and was performed at Kingsley Hall, a community centre in Bow where Gandhi lived and stayed for three months in 1931. Revolution Farm (2014) was a new Orwell adaptation performed on an inner-city farm in Beckton with the special permission of the George Orwell Estate; A Splotch of Red: Keir Hardie in West Ham (2016) dealt with local political history and toured Newham Libraries and Community Links’ Neighbours Hall, where Hardie spoke at one of his many election rallies in Newham, and as a centre for social change, Will Thorne, Bertrand Russell and Sylvia Pankhurst were all to speak, or work, from there. Alice in Canning Town (2019) brought a new, multi-cultural, East End flavoured version of Lewis Carroll to a unique and unconventional accessible adventure playground in Canning Town. The plays have featured a hybrid casting of professional actors and local young people, and have fully integrated both sets of casts in the texts and productions, fusing contemporary physicality’s and language, as drawn from and reflective of the young performers of Newham, with historical materials, adapting existing narratives/stories to the sited, locally specific, contexts.
The theatre practice I have originated, developed and sustained in Newham for over a decade is a coherent body of research, investigating and revealing meaningful ways to embed the life of a play in the town, place or community in which they are written, rehearsed, and performed. My theatre texts explore and respond to local history and culture, built on by the productions discovering ways to negotiate the relation of these texts to specific local sites. Through methodologies of adaptation/appropriation, historical research, dramaturgy, and site-responsive production techniques, my work takes as its wellspring the culture, history and present community of Newham in order to investigate creative ways of valorising and privileging area and community, via the use of public spaces as performance auditoria, and the mixed economy participation of professional and local talent.
One of the most fruitful, productive and successful collaborations I’ve had in my writing career is with fellow playwright and good friend, James Martin Charlton. I’ve never really wanted to direct my own plays simply because I’ll readily admit I just don’t think I have the patience, tolerance or actor management skills. I just want the actors to bloody well get on with it and do the play the way I’ve written it. End of story. That’s not exactly a helpful Director’s note. In addition to being a playwright himself, JMC is an experienced, confident, but also easy-going director. This is fortunate for me. He knows my writing style, knows how plays are put together, and his patience with me in the rehearsal room is infinite.
He’s directed five of my plays. And I’ve had no complaint with any of them. JMC directed my professional debut, Johnny Song, at the Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, which had its fair share of complications and difficulties (mainly due to that old devil – casting decisions that backfired spectacularly). But we followed this up a year later with Gob at The King’s Head Theatre, a huge hit (critically and commercially) which starred ex-Take That heartthrob Jason Orange, putting in a stunning performance as a hardcore street poet and political provocateur/agitator (read the reviews if you don’t believe me!).
JMC has gone on to direct three of the Newham Plays: Revolution Farm, A Splotch of Red: Keir Hardie in West Ham, and Alice in Canning Town. He’s responded imaginatively, innovatively and practically to directing the plays in non-traditional and unorthodox spaces in Newham, which includes an inner-city farm, public libraries, and an adventure playground. It hasn’t been easy. We have only two weeks rehearsals to put the show together (the National Theatre get six or seven – oh the luxury). We have no lighting, no scenery, a bare minimum of props. There are no pre-show drinks. And no ice creams during the interval. And if it’s an outdoor show sometimes we have to pray for the rain to go away so we don’t have to cancel a performance. In all of this, JMC has remained admirably calm under pressure and continued to crack niche jokes that probably only he and I get. Which is just as well. Because you have to really care about this kind of theatre-making to be able to do it. It needs to mean something. Not just working by numbers. To paraphrase Bill Shankly’s famous verdict on football: "Some people believe theatre is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." And that’s the only kind of person I want to give my work to direct.
"A powerful update of Orwell's classic"
"This is a show that mixes history and fiction to craft a fine piece of theatre with a message for our times."
The Public Reviews
"Fast-paced plot and sparkling dialogue...an accomplished piece of theatre"
Edinburgh Evening News
“Funny, feisty and strangely touching”
“A 70–minute high”
“A curious, lively piece…an interesting use of rhythm, dropping in faux-Shakespearean couplets and strange lyricism”
A selection of media from my works.
For any enquiries regarding performance and/or production rights, or collaboration