Kenny, Sean (1932–73), set designer and architect, was born John Noel Kenny on 23 December 1932 in Portroe, Co. Tipperary, eldest among nine sons of Thomas Joseph Kenny, builder and former IRA man, and Nora Kenny (née Gleeson). He was educated at St Flannan's College, Co. Clare, and credited summers spent on his father's building sites with his decision to study architecture. After attending the Dublin School of Architecture, he practised for a short period in Dublin before deciding to study further under Frank Lloyd Wright. To get to Wright in Wisconsin, he set sail with two others on a 36-ft (11 m) shrimp boat and reached America three months later. There he combined his studies with Wright with an adventurous life: he hunted wolves in Canada, prospected for gold in Arizona, and was made a blood brother by the Apache. After helping design railway stations and hotels in Canada, he moved to England (1957) to design the set for ‘Shadow of a gunman’ at the Lyric theatre, Hammersmith. His set for ‘The hostage’, by Brendan Behan (qv), at Stratford-atte-Bowe, in the east end of London, the following year brought him acclaim; the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote: ‘Sean Kenny's setting, a skeleton stockade of a bedroom surrounded by a towering blind alley of slum windows, is by far the best in London’ (Tynan, 228). In 1960 Kenny's radical set for Lionel Bart's musical ‘Oliver!’ at the New Theatre caused a sensation and established him as London's leading stage designer. It consisted of a revolving timber unit, whose hydraulic parts moved electronically to assemble into four different settings. Thereafter revolving stages, screens, and moving parts became Kenny's trademarks in the thirty-two major West End productions which he designed between 1960 and 1970. These included two more Bart productions, ‘Blitz!’ (1962) and ‘Maggie May’ (1964), as well as ‘The flying Dutchman’ (Covent Garden, 1966), where the stage floor lurched to suggest waves, and ‘The four musketeers’ (Drury Lane, 1967), where units grouped themselves into drawbridges and flights of steps.
The Times wrote that ‘no theatre designer since the war has done more to widen the scope of the profession’ (24 January 1966); the critic Irving Wardle named him ‘the only indisputable artist to have emerged from [West End musicals]’ (Times, 19 Dec. 1967), and the rock star David Bowie, who worked with him on a 1972 show, called him absolutely brilliant. However, his ostentatious sets had their detractors. The opera director Peter Coe complained that ‘audiences came to see what Sean had erected rather than to listen to the music’ (Times, 13 Mar. 1980), while his erstwhile champion Kenneth Tynan wrote waspishly in 1962: ‘I have a fearful premonition of the next show Mr Kenny designs. As soon as the curtain rises the sets will advance in a phalanx on the audience and summarily expel it from the theatre. After that the next step is clear. Mr Kenny will invent sets that applaud’ (Tynan, 319). In rebuttal of such criticism and with reference to his more minimalist set for ‘Uncle Vanya’ at the Chichester festival, 1962, Kenny remarked that ‘the better the work, the less the designer has to do’ (Times, 24 Jan. 1966).
His designs did not stop with sets. He created a stage for the newly established National Theatre in 1963 on the former premises of the Old Vic. Typically it was a revolving stage but in practice worked so arbitrarily that it was nicknamed ‘the Revolt’. In Las Vegas his stage for the Dunes Hotel had octopus-style ‘arms’, which picked up and set down cabaret acts. In the Bahamas he created the world's first all-glass underwater restaurant. His exhibit for Britain at the World Expo 1967 was the ‘Gyrontion’ – a thrill ride that carried passengers through a virtual Outer Space and ended them up in the arms of thirty-foot (9 m) crabs. It cost $2 million and broke down on its first day at the Expo, trapping eighty people at the 215 ft (65.5 m) level.
In person Kenny was plain-spoken and forceful and kept his house in Cheyne Row, London, minimalist and unadorned. His adventurous spirit was kept in check by continuous work but surfaced occasionally: he was arrested one night halfway up the Ambassador theatre, armed with a screwdriver to take down the sign for the Christmas staple, ‘The mousetrap’. His personal life was difficult: a first marriage to Jan Walker broke up, and in 1967 he married the actress Judy Huxtable. Four years later she was cited in Peter Cook's divorce case and this marriage also broke up. In March 1973 his first wife took him to court for non-payment of child support for their three children; he countered that he had recently filed for bankruptcy. Three months later, on 12 June 1973, he died in London of a stroke, aged 40. A few days later his body was flown for burial in his home town of Portroe.
His untimely death was the more regretted because rehearsals for his first major directing debut, ‘Juno and the paycock’, were due to start that morning. Previously he had directed (and adapted) ‘Gulliver's travels’, aimed at children (1968), and two productions for the Irish theatre in Toronto, which he launched in early 1973. His death deprived Dublin audiences of his direction of M. J. Molloy's (qv) ‘The king of Friday's men’, scheduled for the Abbey that summer. Kenny seldom worked in Dublin; the director Hilton Edwards (qv) recalled that they had started working together in 1957 on an Alan McClelland play about James Joyce (qv) before the production was banned.
His sets were revived in later years in the West End by Cameron Mackintosh and John Napier for Andrew Lloyd Webber's ‘Cats’.