Sarah Kendall: "Life is like a pie of details thrown at your head"

Delving into stories from her youth, Sarah Kendall's remarkable rise has not been without sacrifice. She tells Jay Richardson about the fine lines between truth and fiction, and between laughter and tears

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Sarah Kendall
Published 20 Jul 2016

Sarah Kendall was delighted by Sam Simmons' reaction to her last show. Like many who experienced A Day In October's emotional gut-punch, he was left reeling by his friend's hour. “Afterwards, he said 'that was so …' And I thought he was going to say 'amazing',” she smiles slyly. “But then he went '…manipulative.'”

Kendall cherishes her fellow Australian's upset, the grin spreading across her face. Since the 2014 Fringe, she's chosen to focus on extended storytelling in her standup, sharing tales from her teenage years growing up in Newcastle, New South Wales to tremendous acclaim, as well as not inconsiderable laughs and tears. October was nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award, 11 years after her first nomination. Along with its predecessor, Touchdown, it forms the basis of the 39-year-old's upcoming Radio 4 coming-of-age trilogy, which also incorporates her new Fringe show, Shaken.

Those who approached Kendall after seeing October were “generally crying” she says. But each night, some would ask how much of her shunned school friend George Peach's story was true? How blameworthy were they for their own suspension of disbelief?

“Life is like a pie of details thrown at your head,” she ventures, with something of an Aussie twist on Forrest Gump. “Whereas with a good story, it's all lined up very carefully and everything's turned up to the right notch at the right time. When you're crying it's because you're meant to be crying, those are the narrative beats.”

So three people might become one composite character in her retelling. It's the emotional import rather than the details that “make you lean in”.

“When people remember things, the details are often all over the place. But the gist of those memories, the thumbprints remain,” offers Kendall, whose father's work as a forensic scientist inspired the initial (but ultimately ditched) visual image of a rotting brown tooth in a corpse for October. “Eyewitness accounts never line up. People's stories change when they're repeatedly questioned. We only have an idea of what's true because we shape our memories to fit our worldview.”

Shaken, she declares, is “the biggest and most ambitious thing I've ever tried to write”. Exploring "at what point does something stop being a good story and become a lie?”, she's also considering when blurring the two becomes “dangerous”.

Set in Newcastle in 1989, when Kendall was “13 or 14”, it's a standalone hour but it pre-dates previous shows Touchdown and October, so people who'd died in those shows are resurrected. “There were some things I wanted to tidy up, and if you've seen the previous ones, there are a few extra rewards,” she remarks of the tale, which spiralled out of her teenage insistence that she was almost abducted on the way to school.

October was the “gateway” to Shaken, as she belatedly realised her guilt about its events were “disproportionate to her crime”, prompting her to reassess "and discover where my guilt really lies".

For all its success, her dread of delivering October's denouement night after night made last year her worst festival yet. And she expects to feel the same again.

“It was horrible,” she confides. “I used to read interviews with actors in which they would talk about how doing a part really screwed with their minds. And I always thought: 'Grow up! Just learn your lines and don't bump into the props'.

“But then this fucking show did my head in. I was really tearful towards the end of the run. My voice would crack. If you do something often enough, drawing on these mental images every night, it muddies the memories, you start actually going to this place. I had to do that to make it believable, to make it work. And I was a fucking mess by the end of the festival, really depressed.”

With the growing buzz surrounding the show, she added extra late-night performances to meet demand, “which really affected my sleep.

“I was playing with fire. The emotional gist of the story felt truer and truer because I was agitating it every night. And it was a lot more potent than I thought.” Despite knowing her script verbatim, George Peach's fate continued to floor her. “I had to be in that state, otherwise, how could I tell it?” she reasons. “[Shaken] has echoes of it too.”

Fortunately, Kendall doesn't see any incongruity between crying and laughing.

“I'm a whore for a laugh,” she affirms. “There will always be jokes. And I like having serious moments with laughs in them. It keeps it honest. It keeps it real. Funny moments with people crying and sad moments where you crack up feel authentic to me.”

After living in the UK for 15 years, there are practical reasons why she's still revisiting Newcastle. Partly, it's because she's a mother of two. And “if I did standup about my day, it would just be child-rearing stuff”. She also likes messing with the sunny beach stereotypes British audiences were given by Neighbours and Home and Away, introducing a “darker underbelly”.

But for someone who venerates legendary teen movie director John Hughes, adolescence is also hugely inspiring. “It's so free of responsibility and constraints,” she points out. “Also, everything is so emotionally sharp and amplified. You're sampling adult emotions for the first time. It's quite thrilling to try and make that vivid.”