Jonathan Hall reviews Kes by Robert Alan Evans based on the novel by Barry Hines now playing at Leeds Playhouse.
28 January 2019
Kes is a moving, engaging, inspiring and beautiful piece of theatre. This adaptation of the iconic Barry Hines novel by Robert Alan Evans is a show that haunts the mind long after the lights have come up- aptly so as it’s a play that explores the beauty and heartbreak that’s our memory of times past.
To adapt such a well-known book (a book subsequently made into an equally well-known film, one that seared across my 13-year-old mind and still shines strong some forty years later) – is a task fraught with potential pitfalls. I was predicting perhaps clunky reworkings of the original prose or maybe re-heated scenes from the film; Evans, however, has fallen into none of these traps. He has taken Hine’s story and reinvented it for the format of the stage and in doing so has sharply captured the essence of the novel. An ageing man looks back- clambering painfully (and literally) down through a tangle of memories to a time and place he’s compelled yet fearful to revisit; the landscape of his 15-year-old self- his boozy ineffectual mother, the scruffy pit village, the condemning chorus of neighbours and teachers. And Kes. The kestrel chick he finds in the local woods, a creature of beauty and power, the only valid, important connection he’s found thus far in his life and – it’s heartbreakingly implied – the only such connection he will ever find.
Through a madcap interaction with his younger self Billy Casper’s world bursts into vivid life, a world of cold mornings and paper rounds, bullying teachers and punishing games lessons- a world that’s set to taunt and cane and browbeat him into readiness for a life of going down the pit. The only thing of any beauty and meaning is the kestrel he nurtures and trains and escapes to from his grim existence. Jud, his older brother, a bitter angry force, is already beaten into the life Billy seeks to escape and takes an angry delight in seeing his feckless brother driven relentlessly in the same way. As a character I’d always seen Jud as ignorant and cruel; here thanks to the inclusion of some brotherly banter we can see his own angry tragedy, which makes his treatment of his brother- and the bird- if not sympathetic then understandable.
The production is a masterly ensemble of elements that blend and compliment. The set by Max Johns, a stark jumble of chairs, stools and tables to be clambered over, hid behind, ran round vividly evokes Billy Casper’s own tangled messy world; the scenes are beautifully underpinned by a score from Tom Mills adding emotion and poignancy to moments of stillness. Both set and music work together with movement choreographed by Lucy Cullingford to compliment Evan’s script which embraces the full potential of theatre juxtaposing word and image: a ranting head teacher is counterpointed by the graceful flying of Billy’s hawk, a fateful horse race turns relentlessly into Jud’s attack on his wayward brother who has failed to place a crucial bet.
The story is energised by compelling performances by Lucas Button and Jack Lord as the younger and older Billy; the piece is directed with energy and flair by Martin Leonard and Amy Leach. It’s appropriate a play that explores the power of memories should come out 50 years after the iconic film’s release. Kes is a terrific piece of theatre: go see.
Until 16 February 2019