Monday 28th January 2019 at Leeds Playhouse.
Kes is based on Barry Hines’ 1968 novel A Kestral for a Knave which was subsequently adapted for the screen under the title Kes, from which this stage adaptation follows (adapted by Robert Alan Evans). Once a staple for study in schools and a popular film to boot, Kes has a wide audience of those who discovered it in their youth and of course, it’s equally as appealing in subject matter and defiant tone to today’s young people.
Billy Casper is growing up on a bleak Barnsley estate. He’s dominated by his disillusioned brother who roughs him up in half-brotherly fashion, but also clearly as a vent for his frustrations with a life of early mornings and a life down the mines. School is strict and rotten. Home is depressingly cloying and void of any real engagement. His mother’s primary concern is ciggies and a constant hope to avoid Billy winding up his brother with his angsty defiance. Where does a boy like Billy find purpose?
Out in the escape of the great outdoors, Billy finds a Kestrel chick. His sullen, uninteresting world takes a dive into exciting new territory as he resolves to train this bird they say cannot be trained. For a boy resentful of the education system (complete with cane and disciplinarian teachers), seeking a book on the subject is a heart-warming indication of determination to do something worthy with himself.
Suddenly, Billy discovers meaning. He recognises that he can in fact be skilful and inspire a unique relationship with a bird not destined for dependence but resolved to endure it for food, and that’s enough for Billy.
Of course, in the most comfortless works depicting the grind and the challenges of working class northern life, this release and sense of worth Billy finds doesn’t last. A poor, spur of the moment decision has catastrophic consequences and the boy who begins with nothing returns to that state, but this time with a new and tragic resolve.
The play is a two hander. Lucas Button takes the central role of Billy Casper while Jack Lord plays absolutely every character Billy interacts with. Although this is initially a little difficult to follow, particularly as Lord also seems to play an older version of Billy haunted by these memories, it soon finds feet and pace enough to become possibly the strongest feature of the piece. Watching Billy collide with Lord’s wide array of comic and cantankerous characters is brilliant and often very funny thanks to Lord’s enthusiastic depictions.
Button’s take on Billy is wonderful. His performance is a sincere one and he is entirely credible as the scrappy, scruffy youngster whose nature is far more gentle than the exterior he is clearly judged by.
Listening to the affectionate voice and seeing his softened features when handling Kes instantly warms us to him. Seeing him ill-used in one way or another by every person he encounters, we invest heavily in his growing confidence with the bird. Seeing his moments of defiance are even more endearing for their light comedy.
It’s certainly not an easy role but Button manages to channel dead eyes and sullen expressions for life out home alongside a warmth and a glow in the outdoors to carry us along Billy’s journey of raw experiences and emotions.
Under Original Direction from Amy Leach and Associate Direction from Martin Leanard, this is a warm and comic play with a good balance of realism and darkness. It’s also a very lively, physical production with Movement Direction from Lucy Cullingford in need of note along with Fight Direction from Bethan Clark.
Billy is full of energy and Button scarpers about the stage space with impressive agility. Following suit, Lord clambers after him in any given role. Set design from Max Johns offers a high wall of chaotically stacked chairs. There’s significance to that wall backdrop in a story like this, but those chairs cleverly provide various levels to create visuals of Billy’s fearless scaling of peaks and his flailing escape routes.
There’s no happy ending in Kes and while that’s more than a little out of keeping with coming of age narratives, it does serve to make this a distinct and emotive work which should appeal to the majority but particularly any young people who have felt equally hopelessly lost in their circumstances, because despite the grim conclusion, this story does at least give us a heart-warming story of hope and determination.
Kes is presented by Leeds Playhouse Productions and runs at the Leeds Playhouse Pop Up Theatre until February 16th. You can find tickets here.