After years of writing success, including adaptations of David Walliams’ children’s novels, David Kerby-Kendall returns to acting to star in his new two-hander 20:40, coming to London’s Omnibus Theatre for 12 performances only next month. He told us more about his inspiration for the piece. Time to get booking!
Like an all-consuming fog, depression has invaded Michael’s mind.
Set on two evenings, twenty years apart, Michael, at ages 20 and 40, recalls the pivotal moments and people in his life; from Daniel, his soulmate and first love, to Jennifer, the outrageous girlfriend who becomes the distant wife. 20:40 is a study of one man’s irrepressible lust for life, fighting a disease he will always refer to as The Shadow.
In the two-hander, running at Omnibus Theatre from 4 to 16 June 2019, author David Kerby-Kendall stars as Michael at the age of 40, opposite Alastair Hill as Michael at 20. Julie Osman directs.
Talking to… David Kerby-Kendall
David Kerby Kendall‘s acting credits include Half Moon, Private Lives, Abigail’s Party and Cuckoos. He became the in-house writer for Heartbreak Productions in 2009 and has since adapted five of David Walliams‘ children’s books – Mr Stink, Ratburger, Billionaire Boy, The Midnight Gang and Gangsta Granny – for numerous national tours. His second independent play, The Moon is Halfway to Heaven, was produced at Jermyn Street Theatre and his first novel The Rainbow Player was published in 2017.
Which do you prefer: writing or acting?
I began writing in 2007 when I had to temporarily give up acting due to several knee operations. Part of me is now plastic. I’m not exactly the Six Million Dollar Man, more the Six Dollar Man. I was missing a creative outlet. (I’m a great believer that you can dampen down creative desire but you can never extinguish it.) I had an idea for a play and named it after the first record I ever bought. Unfortunately, this was Save Your Kisses For Me. (In my defence, I was very young and had questionable musical taste, as opposed to now when I have appalling musical taste).
From that, I became the in-house writer for Heartbreak Productions and have written plays and adapted novels, including five of David Walliams’ fabulous children’s novels, for national and international tours. My second play, The Moon Is Halfway to Heaven, was staged at Jermyn Street Theatre and my fourth, Gay Pride And No Prejudice, is nearly finished. I love writing – I get such a kick out of creating worlds – but I also love acting. Writing is very solitary and acting, obviously, very social and interactive. To be honest, I don’t know which I love the most.
You’ve also written a novel. How different do you find writing prose to a play?
Yes, my novel is called The Rainbow Player and is the coming-of-age story of a Premiership footballer who discovers that he’s gay. I loved writing it. I was in a café once writing a very sad part of the novel. (I do nearly all my writing in cafes. I write in longhand with a fountain pen. I’m very aware of how ‘up my own bottom’ that sounds; it’s just that I can’t get inspiration whilst staring at a laptop and I can’t write with a biro!) And I didn’t realise it, but tears were streaming down my face. A couple of minutes later a little old lady came up to me, asked if I was alright and gave me a cappuccino and slice of cake she’d bought to cheer me up! She was so lovely, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was upset because of something I was writing.
I enjoy writing prose: I love words and rhythm and how using an unexpected word can completely change the meaning, even the outcome, of the story. I set my mind two degrees from reality and become lost in the endless possibilities that my mind can create. I also write a lot of dialogue. I’m lucky in that, as I’m also an actor, I can act out the lines in my head and, if they don’t sound naturalistic, I cut or rewrite.
What was your initial inspiration for 20:40?
The idea for 20:40 came when I was sitting on a bus. I had wanted to write about depression, and especially male suicide, for some time. I don’t normally like differentiating between the sexes. I hate labels and we are all human beings, but men are generally SO bad at expressing their emotions and accepting that depression is not a weakness, that I wanted to base the play on a guy, but also make his fight against the disease a universal one. The friendship between Mikey and Danny was actually inspired by the friendship between Johnny and Owen in John Irving’s wonderful novel A Prayer for Owen Meany.
In my mind, I saw Mikey at the age of 40 alone in a bedsit trying to make sense of what was happening to him. But I also wanted the audience to know Mikey earlier in his life so that we could see that he, himself, hadn’t changed his exuberance and lust for life, it was just that depression had invaded his mind. I then saw how Mikey, at both ages, could attempt to understand his life and the onset of his mental health issues by replaying memories in his mind and that we could slip from his thoughts in the present into a world of memories and the pivotal moments and people that shaped his life
Have you had any experiences with depression in your own life?
Depression runs right down the maternal line in my family. No one has escaped it. I’ve always been an eternal optimist; not just seeing the glass half full but actually overflowing and making an embarrassing mess on the carpet. However, there have been some periods in my life when depression has taken over.
Most of the time I’m very lucky and am free of it, but there have been two occasions when I have nearly taken my own life and a few when the real Me has been so ridden with depression that all meaning to life ended and all that was left of me was an image of what I really am.
The things that helped me were, on one occasion, taking anti-depressants, mindfulness meditation, and just knowing that I was loved. Also, the fact that many of us, especially celebrities, are now openly discussing our suffering makes a massive difference. One of the worst things about depression is the feeling that you’re cut off and entirely alone, and this new openness is a wonderful step forward in bringing everyone together, sufferers or otherwise, to support each other.
Did you always want to perform 20:40?
Yes, I wrote 20:40 with me in mind to play Mikey at 40. (I’d love to play him at 20, but the audience would need to watch it through very thick gauze, possibly in a blackout!). It’s very easy to switch from playwright to actor in the rehearsal room: 99% of the timer I’m an actor. Very occasionally, Julie Osman, our director, will say ‘writer hat on please’ and I shift roles. In a way, I suppose, it’s good to have the writer in the room as it takes far less time to make cuts or do rewrites. I’m certainly not precious about my scripts; in fact, I’ve suggested most of the cuts.
Tell us about your rapport with your ‘younger stage self’.
Alastair Hill, who plays the younger Michael, is an absolute dream: a great actor and a lovely person. We hit it off straight away. We’re both very open people, and there have been no barriers between us from the first day of rehearsal. Ali and I each play seven roles, three of whom are the same character, so we watch each other and mirror each other’s moves and mannerisms. We’re also quite similar actors and this has helped too. It’s a difficult play but our rapport deepened very quickly, and we also laugh regularly – usually when one of us falls over the furniture or says a line backwards! Ali is a delight to work with.
Who should see 20:40 & why?
I would like everyone to see 20:40, whether they have been affected by depression or not. I hope it will give anyone who hasn’t suffered an insight into what goes on in people’s heads when depression takes over. However, the play is also a celebration of life, love and eradicating the need to label people; because this drives barriers between us and is an excuse to wilfully misunderstand others.
There is a LOT of comedy in the play. Humour is the greatest healer in my opinion. And I would also like anyone who has suffered or is suffering from depression to come, to know that you are not alone. I hope I’ve managed to, at least partially, articulate what depression really is, and I hope that the play will help in some small way to raise even more awareness of this appalling disease. There is safety in numbers, and the more of us who can hug each other and say that this is not a weakness, that it takes massive strength to beat this back every day, the more chance we have of saving lives.
What’s next for you after this run?
As far as writing goes, I’ve nearly finished my second novel, which is partially based on 20:40. I’ve also been commissioned to write the book of a new musical called Toys, which I’m very excited about. On the acting front, I’m just returning to the profession (apologies for sounding like Norma Desmond), and I’m hoping that 20:40 will be the springboard to some new and exciting acting jobs.