Like father like son; interview Matthew Rixon talks to Philip Key about working on stage with his famous father.
ACTOR Matthew Rixon cannot really remember his first time on stage. He was just six months old and played "a baby".
"I appeared as a baby or small child in a number of repertory productions. Every time they wanted a real live child I was there."
It was hardly surprising. Rixon is the son of Matthew Kelly, the television presenter who was then a jobbing actor doing the round of the reps.
His first proper performance he recalls was at the Liverpool Everyman as a nine-year-old in writer John McGrath's play Bitter Apples presented by the writer's own 9:84 Company.
"I don't remember much about John McGrath as I was a little pipsqueak and he was a big, scary man," he says.
He thinks he got paid for the role "but it went straight to my Mum and Dad - I wasn't allowed to touch it!"
Nearly 30 years later, Rixon is back at the Everyman for the first time and rather appropriately appearing with his father, Matthew Kelly.
Both appear in Samuel Beckett's classic play Endgame, last staged at the Everyman some 38 years ago.
Kelly, who deserted television light entertainment shows to return to acting, first cut his acting teeth at the Everyman in the 1970s alongside others like Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite.
He was last on the Liverpool stage at the Liverpool Playhouse in 2003 in the much-applauded Birmingham Repertory Company production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
In that, with shaved head, he played the retarded Lennie in the moving drama of friendship.
This time around he is playing Hamm, a man who is blind and cannot stand up. Son Matthew Rixon - who at 6ft 4ins looks remarkably like his father - is playing his slave/servant Clov, a man who can't sit down.
In the play, they bicker and argue while Hamm's parents - who are legless - live in the same room inside trash cans.
It is, as you can imagine, not your usual drawing room comedy.
Directing is former associate at the Royal Shakespeare Company Lucy Pitman-Wallace who has worked with Matthew Junior on and off for a dozen years or so.
She was discussing future projects with Matthew Jr, possibly involving his father, and it came up that Kelly had once played one of the tramps in Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Well, Beckett's Endgame had long been a favourite of hers.
When she set up her theatre company Three Legged Theatre back in 1990, Endgame was the first show they did.
"In fact it was called Three Legged Theatre because there is a three-legged dog in Endgame. The producer's mum made the prop dog which was a thing of great beauty!"
"I had always wanted to do the play with a big company and when I put the idea to Gemma Bodinetz, artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman/ Playhouse Theatre, she clapped her hands with joy."
It is also a bit of an anniversary for the play itself, first presented in French in 1957 just over 50 years ago (Beckett later translated it himself into English).
For both Matthews to return to the theatre where each began their careers is something of a coup - and pretty exciting, too, says Pitman- Wallace. Rixon, although born in Manchester he admits guiltily, grew up in Liverpool while his father was on Everyman duties in the acting company.
"I went to my first school in Liverpool and got my first accent."
As a Liverpool FC fan he has returned to watch his heroes play at Anfield but has not visited the city proper that much. And apart from that appearance aged nine, has never worked professionally on the Liverpool stage. "My memories are obviously rose-tinted, about long summers, big birthday parties and all that."
I come across Mathew Jr and Lucy in the rehearsal room at the Playhouse where it seems they have been having fun.
Lucy explains: "During the first week of rehearsal a director will say 'let's do a lot of bonding exercises to create an ensemble and for people to get to know each other'. On this occasion it was not needed.
Matthew Jr explains: "It's all very professional but we do lark about.
We make each other laugh and in rehearsals you need to laugh."
During rehearsals with the proper three-legged dog prop still to arrive, they have been using a toy Donkey from the film Shrek. "Matthew discovered that it had a red button on it saying press me and his Dad was doing this speech which was quite difficult and saying he was finding it hard," reports Lucy.
"When you see a sign saying press, what does an actor do?" laughs Rixon. "I pressed it and out came the voice of Eddie Murphy as Donkey." It broke the tension and everyone carried on.
For his first Beckett play, Rixon found the dialogue not too difficult.
"It's harder for Dad's character as he leads and drives the play and I just have to do the responses."
But there are a lot of silences which, Rixon says, are often just as important as the arguments and quick exchanges.
"I am sharing digs with Dad so we go home every night and run through sections of the play together to make sure we have got it absolutely right."
Working with them are Tina Gray and Ciaran McIntyre playing the ageing parents Nell and Nagg who in the play lost their legs in a cycling incident many years earlier.
Lucy did the casting and as soon as she saw them knew they were both right for the roles. She has not worked with them before but reckons new people bring energy and challenge to a production. "Both are very sparky," she adds.
But what on earth is the play all about? "It's a wonderful play, one of Beckett's best," says Lucy. "He often talked about it as his perfect play. It all about relationships, how people in families live together or don't, how dads gets on with sons and a big question about what we do with old people. It is about families who use dark, gallows humour, a sort of wry humour."
So no belly laughs? "I will be looking for laughs but I am not allowed to," says Rixon. "I have been put on a tight rein."
Much of the play is a metaphor, says Lucy: "What do you do with old people? You keep them in the litter bin but also keep them in the house and feed them biscuits. It's about how to cope with grumpy old men."
But is Clov, as some commentators have suggested, the son of Hamm?
"Nothing is stated," says Matthew.
"It is left to audience to make up their own minds."
Lucy tells an anecdote how in one early production at which Beckett was in attendance, one of the actors asked the Irish-born writer if a story that Hamm tells about a little boy arriving actually referred to Clov. "I don't know," replied Beckett.
ENDGAME runs at the Liverpool Everyman from April 11-May 3.
I went to my first school in Liverpool and got my first accent
Matthew Rixon, left, and his father, Matthew Kelly, are appearing on stage together at the Liverpool Everyman; Matthew Rixon bearing an uncanny resemblance to his father and Endgame director Lucy Pitman-Wallace