Lightning rise of Thunder actor in box office smash

St Annes' Sean McKenzie with Lee Armstrong in War Horse
St Annes' Sean McKenzie with Lee Armstrong in War Horse
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As soon as Sean McKenzie saw a play starring fellow St Annes lad Stephen Tompkinson he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

“It was at St Bede’s High. I watched Stephen on stage, absolutely loved it and I thought ‘I want to do that’,” said Sean.

And do it he has, an accomplished actor for the last two decades who has starred in all sorts of top quality TV programmes (Downton Abbey, Vera) and performed in productions by the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company.

“The nice thing is that Stephen and I are in regular contact,” he added. “In fact we’ve just filmed an episode of Truckers together.”

There will be no more TV stuff for Sean for a while though, for he has bigger fish to fry – landing a major part in the theatre phenomenon that is War Horse, which has kicked off a nine-week sell out run at the Lowry in Salford.

It is the latest impressive notch in a CV which ticks nearly every acting box.

“I have been very lucky,” said the 43-year-old, who is clearly northern because he’s a very down-to-earth fella.

“I was at St Bede’s in the days when there was no Drama O level so you did acting for the crack really.”

He got his Equity card after leaving school, then got into RADA and landed a role on The Bill before he’d completed the course.

That kickstarted a career which has seen Sean work with the likes of Alan Ayckbourn, John Lithgow, Robert Carlyle, Jimmy Nesbitt, John Simm and Michael Winterbottom.

All of which makes his family in St Annes pretty happy, a place he visits often. “I live in the Peak District but I’m back in St Annes a lot because my parents and my three brothers are there,” he said.

His dad was a singer and moved the family to Blackpool 40 years ago so he could perform in the pubs and clubs of the Fylde.

He’s clearly passed his talent on to his family, with another of the McKenzie lads – Sean’s brother Liam – singer in local band The Coustics.

As for Sean, he is signed to War Horse until 2015.

He plays Captain Thunder, a character who gets plenty of laughs. “It’s probably what I’m best at, doing comedic roles,” he says.

Given War Horse is so huge – six million people have seen it since it opened in 2007 – does he feel any pressure?

“You feel nervous because it is such a big thing, a unique piece of theatre, and I don’t think there will be anything like it for a long time,” he said.

“But it is fabulous. Before the Lowry we were in Birmingham.

“We did 31 shows and 56,000 people saw it. That is just unbelievable box office.

“The reaction of the audience is unbelievable and it is great to see people being so emotional and connecting with it. It is just great to be a part of.”

Although the Lowry’s nine-week run is a sell out, you can see Sean in War Horse when it returns there next summer. Details at www.thelowry.com