Ellie Kendrick and Sinéad Matthews are newly arrived in London when we meet for our interview at the Royal Court Theatre, back from the premiere run of Vivienne Franzmann’s brutal but astonishing Pests at the Manchester Exchange Theatre and hours away from their first preview at the Sloane Square venue. It is several weeks after they have begun working together and sitting opposite them you’d be forgiven for taking them for sisters.
Yes, their hair colour may differ and Matthews’ slightly nervous manner at odds with the more laid back Kendrick who jumps forward with obvious passion at every question, but there is something about their mirroring slight frames – when a request for water is met with the arrival of two huge beer glasses they laugh at the suggestion they’ve been sent to make them look even smaller – the way they frequently glance at one another for backup or to share an inside joke and complete each other’s sentences that makes it hard to believe that before Pests they had only ever met once.
Of course, playing sisters on stage may often have this effect, but never more so than in Franzmann’s fiercely intense drama that tells the story of two siblings bound together by a shared past and a destructive addiction. Directed by Lucy Morrison, the Artistic Director of Clean Break, a theatre compay dedicated to working with female offenders, the play takes a raw look at the cycle of reoffending and addiction in a blisteringly powerful production that Kendrick and Matthews lead with courageous and exhausting performances. While it is undoubtedly bleak, the pair has found the wit and optimism in Franzmann’s uniquely written play and a passion for a section of society they want people to stand up and pay attention to.
Tell me about your characters.
Matthews: I play Pink, Rolly’s sister. She is a drug addict, she is suffering with a mental illness – psychosis – which stems from a trauma; she was sexually abused in the foster home where she spent some of her childhood. She’s always haunted by it, and I think one thing has led to another and it’s a downward spiral for Pink. Their parents were junkies, but she is a survivor.
Kendrick: My character’s the younger sister, she’s 21. They grew up together until Rolly was seven and Pink was 12, at which point they were taken away from their parents. Rolly was taken on by some foster parents whereas Sinead’s character had to stay in a care home. So at the crux of their relationship is this split that happened in their youth and yet they’re the only thing that each other have.
There’s more of a softness to my character and the play begins when she’s come out of prison. It’s not the first time she’s been in prison, but this time it has changed her because she’s met someone who has shown an interest in her for the first time since she was 10-years-old and has inspired her and taught her to read and write. The play follows the narrative of the two sisters trying to cling on to each other and push each other away.
Had you met before this production?
Matthews: We had met yes…
Kendrick: …in the bar downstairs!
Matthews: Because we were both here [at the Royal Court] at the same time. I was Upstairs she was Downstairs. But we’ve not worked together.
Your relationship is so crucial in the play, did you have to audition together at any point to make sure the chemistry was right?
Kendrick: No, that was kind of a stab in the dark really, but we’ve been getting on all right!
Matthews: Just about… No it’s great and actually I felt that the audition process was incredibly thorough compared to others. I came in three times for it, which I don’t think I’ve ever done. I was having to come in before rehearsals for [the National Theatre’s] Blurred Lines at about 09:00 in the morning. Because I think it means an incredible amount to both Lucy and Vivienne as a project, they just wanted to get it right.
The language in the play is quite unusual. Did you find that a challenge?
Matthews: I actually felt the opposite. It’s not that I understood everything, but I didn’t find it difficult. Did you find it difficult Ellie?
Kendrick: It’s funny that you say that because lots of people, almost the first thing they say is ‘How did you understand it?’ But the language which Viv has created – which is sort of an amalgamation of London street language and her own imagination – is so evocative and almost intuitive you very quickly snap into it .
Matthews: There’s a logic behind everything. Money is ‘greens’ and even the words that you think ‘God where did that come from?’ actually make sense. It’s just a different way of saying things and there is a tuning into it I guess.
Vivienne did extensive research for the play. How much did that affect the rehearsal process?
Matthews: During the first week we went through the play on a very simple level asking questions, and what would come out of those conversations were stories and experiences that Vivienne and Lucy both had about this world and women that they’d met. It felt from day one that [these experiences] were never a separate thing, that it was so ingrained in the process. Their research was so intense and thorough that you felt like whatever they were offering was incredibly helpful. Did you find that?
Kendrick: Yes. Clean Break was set up by two ex-offenders and the centre of all of their productions has always been women and the criminal justice system, and alongside their theatrical productions they have loads of courses and workshops for women. So we were actually rehearsing in Clean Break’s headquarters, in the same building as these courses were taking place. Lots of those women had encountered things that the play touched on, so if ever we wanted to, for example, find out what it was like to be an addict and in and out of prison, they could literally go next door and say ‘Can someone come in and talk about this?’ People were incredibly generous and open and helpful because they wanted the story to be told right.
We went into a prison for one morning and did workshops with a drama group, and for me I think that was one of the best parts of the rehearsal process; reading the first three scenes to the drama group and all of them going ‘We know that world’, ‘That bit is my life’ or ‘I can relate to that’. The connection was really instant so it felt really good to have them saying ‘Yes we feel like this represents part of what we know.’
Is working for Clean Break a very different experience in terms of that research?
Matthews: Yes. I guess because it was so specific and everyone who was involved had some sort of experience or link to it and wanted it to be told in the right way. I remember going into the prison that day and I was really nervous because I thought ‘We’re going to be representing a world to a group of people that may know this world better than us.’ I had no reason to be nervous actually, because their support was incredible. It really was extraordinary.
Kendrick: I think part of the reason they were so supportive and open was because it seemed they felt very included finally. What Vivienne has done that is really clever is she’s created this world that is really authentic because of all the research she has done and all the people she’s talked to. She’s taken that preconception of some modern theatregoers of going ‘We don’t know this separate world’ and gone ‘This is happening everywhere and you can’t ignore it.’
How do you feel about that in particular playing at the Royal Court which is situated in a very wealthy area of London?
Kendrick: I don’t think there was ever a conversation about ‘How are we going to represent this world to the Royal Court audience’ it was ‘We are going to represent this world because they are underrepresented’…
Matthews: …and because they need to be.
Kendrick: The whole reason the play is called Pests is because people prefer to think about certain sectors of society as a kind of vermin who can be pushed aside. It’s much more difficult to think ‘Actually, we are in a society that is skewed, that it is really f*cking over the lives of people who are in extreme poverty.’ A lot of people would prefer to stand on the sidelines and pretend it doesn’t happen, so the play is going ‘Well it does happen and you know it does!’
Does being involved in a political play feel important for you as actors?
Kendrick: There’s a real character driven story at the heart and I think regardless of your political bent that’s something that will be really interesting to watch anyway. For me, it’s rare to be able to get the chance and the privilege of being part of a production which is doing something which feels, to me, politically good.
Matthews: I just read the play and fell in love with it instantly. It’s a really funny play! Of course it’s bleak, God it’s bleak, but in life the incredibly funny and incredibly bleak runs alongside each other, and that’s why both these women are amazing because they’re at different points optimistic in their own way, and funny. It’s not just a world of pain!
I didn’t see it as doing something political funnily enough, it’s only when I started working on it that I suddenly realised… your eyes are opened to everything. Of course you become incredibly passionate about the whole thing and about Vivienne and Clean Break, and suddenly you find yourself part of a world that you weren’t a part of [before]. That’s what’s amazing about being an actor or being a part of theatre; with every job something comes along that makes you so much more aware of stuff… you look at things differently.