Tuesday 12 December 2017

The sisters who are committed to each other, on and off stage

Amy and Leah Penston are thrilled that they are just about to tread the boards together in The Commitments

Amy and Leah Penston will shortly perform in The Commitments. Photo: David Conachy
Amy and Leah Penston will shortly perform in The Commitments. Photo: David Conachy
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

When Amy Penston was on a year-long world cruise as a singer, she and younger sister Leah really missed one another. They were thrilled to discover the cruise ship was docking for a day in Barcelona while Leah was on holidays with her pal Laura in Madrid.

"We got a map and picked a place in the middle called Zaragoza," Leah recalls. "We both got off the train and ran to each other screaming. The train cost us a fortune and we only had three hours together to have lunch, a glass of wine and a catch-up, but we didn't care."

Amy (28) and Leah (23) grew up in Arklow, Co Wicklow, and were born into a very musical family. Their grandparents, Paddy and the late Claire, were singers, and their parents (who are no longer together) are musical, too. Their dad, Brian, is a project manager who was a bassist in Feel the Pinch, and their mother, Naoimh, is a professional singer, actor and teacher who competed in the competition to choose an Irish Eurovision entry in 1995.

"I did my first-ever musical with the Avonmore Musical Society when I was five," Amy recalls. "I played Gretl in The Sound of Music, my mother played Liesl and my grandmother, Claire Kavanagh, played Frau Schmidt."

Amy was four when Leah came along, and they were very close. She recalls that Leah was a little bit wilder, yet would be shy and quiet with strangers. "We were different, musically, as I listened to heavy metal and would be off with my guitar rocking out, while Leah would be singing opera," she says. "She used to slag me for being a goth when we were teenagers, but she listened to dance music so she wasn't in a position to slag anyone."

Mum Naoimh was the girls' singing teacher, and while Amy's focus was on singing, her sister's was on performing. "I was a bit of a mad child and always wanted to perform," says Leah.

Amy went on to study acting at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts for three years, and the delightful sisters really missed one another. "I used to fly over to Liverpool all the time to see her," says Leah. "I did most of my growing up when Amy was in college because I used to go out with her friends." Amy came back to work in Ireland for about four years, did lots of shows, taught and gigged with her rock band, Privado. She also did that world cruise as a singer with Royal Caribbean.

As a youngster, Leah went to what is now Innovations Theatre School, and trained under the legendary actress, Anne Shumate. She did musicals through her teens, and then after the Leaving Cert, did a foundation course in opera at the Royal Irish Academy. "Then I went to Guildford School of Acting to study musical theatre," she says. "I graduated in 2014, and moved to London straight away. I had my first professional break in 2015 with the English National Opera in their production of Sweeney Todd, performing alongside Emma Thompson."

"Leah recently won an award for her portrayal of Eva Peron, and her performance floored me," says Amy, proudly. "She is vocally stunning and a great actress and I'm in absolute admiration of her. I can completely be myself around Leah, warts and all, and there is no judgement. We have a hard career that requires us to look at ourselves and question if we are good enough all the time, and Leah is always there for me."

Amy and Leah lived together in London for 18 months while Amy played the part of Natalie in The Commitments. They shared with Amy's boyfriend, Sean Hendley, who is now her husband.

Amy and Sean met when she was 18, and now 31, he is already head of cardiology at Bon Secours Hospital. "While we were in London, Sean was working at Great Ormond Street Hospital, but when he was offered this position, he came home, so it was my turn to follow him," Amy explains. "We were married in May and Leah was my chief bridesmaid, and I couldn't have done it without her. We sang a duet of The Prayer at 4am and there is a clip of it on YouTube. We have recently started gigging together doing a rock set, so I've dragged her to the dark side."

While Amy was already in The Commitments, Leah was invited to audition for the role of Imelda a week before her sister's wedding. She won the part, and while she and Amy have performed together in the past, this is their biggest professional engagement together. They are very much looking forward to performing at Bord Gais Energy Theatre. The show also stars Kevin Kennedy (Corrie's Curly Watts), with Andrew Linnie as Jimmy Rabbitte.

"It's an absolute dream to go on tour with your sister and I think that will translate on stage because there is nothing like real chemistry," says Leah. "Amy and I are best friends and love seeing each other every day. With her, I am mad, but she is madder. There is something that she has that is really special. She immediately looks for the good in everyone, and is so kind and inclusive. There is no one I would trust more with anything in my life and I would be lost without her. Amy's personality shines through her singing, and the quality and soul in her voice is amazing."

The Commitments will run at Bord Gais Energy Theatre from October 12 to 29. Tickets cost from €20 to €65 from www.ticketmaster.ie

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