Directors: Philip Osment and Kully Thiarai
Reviewer : Andrew White
When you are celebrating the end of a successful first year of a new venue, it is ideal to feature a story with local significance which really makes a point about the venues place in the community. So for their celebration, Doncaster’s one year old theatre Cast, chose Kes – originally written by local South Yorkshire writer Barry Hines as the novel A Kestrel For A Knave.
And it’s a good choice. True, Kes isn’t actually set in Doncaster, but neither is it set in Barnsley as many people think. This is due to Ken Loach’s 1969 film version being filmed around Hines’ home turf of Hoyland and Athersley South (both suburbs of Barnsley) but the location is never actually named. So this version places the action well and truly in Doncaster – and the performances’ version of 1968 Donny, is one the audience certainly enjoyed.
This version has been co-adapted and directed by Philip Osment and Cast’s Director Kully Thiarai, and from the start you get a feeling this is going to be a bold interpretation; not least because instead of being ushered into the auditorium, the audience are moved outside onto the public square in front of the theatre. Within minutes, a prelude to the story is played out before us – although it takes a while to realise everything that happens is actually part of the play and not random people riding bikes through the performance.
Once inside the theatre, the play begins proper, and the story is told through a grown-up Billy Casper, who is recounting events to a modern-day kindred-spirit young reprobate. This is a story about a boy who’s failed by the education system and given little opportunity to think of a life other than going ‘down’t local pit’. The mining industry may now be long gone, but the failure of our society to realise the full potential of our young people is just as relevant today as it was in 1968.
So Billy is useless, and there’s nothing much to be happy about; his mum is more interested in finding another man, his brother bullies him, his teachers humiliate him and he’s always the last to be picked at football. But one day he adopts a fledging kestrel Kes, trains it after training himself, and dreams about flying away from a life away from his run-down estate and a job in the coal mine.
To pull this story off, we need a strong performance from the lead, and Jacob James Beswick undoubtedly delivers that. His is a Billy we are behind 100%, and even when he steals a drink from the milkman, we’re all admiring is cheekiness. The script calls on Beswick to display a full range of emotions, and the audience are certainly not left wanting. The scene where Billy is describing to his class the feeling he gets from flying Kes, is inspiring and an absolute joy to behold.
Billy’s nemesis of a bother Jud, played by Ben Burman, has a menace and a threat which truly comes from a dysfunctional family. You don’t turn your back on this Jud, or decide not to put his bet on the horses on at the bookies, but still there’s an air of a wasted life here – what could Jud have been if a South Yorkshire lad’s place in the 1960s wasn’t just about going down the mine?
Sally Carman as Billy and Jud’s mum displays a frustration with her life which many must have felt in that era, as well as almost a fear of her eldest son Jud, which adds a prickly dynamic to the family. How much family justice can Billy get if his mum is scared of his older brother?
A strong supporting cast all play their part in this production, with many playing several parts. Along with the professional cast, the play features 34 community performers from 12 to 76 – a result of Cast’s promise to nurture new local talent.
For a story so focused on a bird, we rarely see the animal in the play. Perhaps it is too much to ask for a real kestrel to be flying around the auditorium, but the interpretation of the bird is very well thought out and the delight of this production extends into the interval, where the audience is able to meet real birds. There’s also innovation in the changing of the sets between scenes, and some imaginative projection which becomes part of the set when required.
Despite the numerous adaptations of the original novel, there’s humour a plenty in this new version. Much of it is locally-based, which plays well with a Doncaster audience, and strikes the perfect balance as to not exclude non-locals. There’s a smattering of strong language too, which is understandable and fitting in the context of the story, but parents may wish to consider this if bringing young children to the production.
This version of Kes is a marvellous end to Cast’s first year as Doncaster’s cultural heart. Perhaps the problem here is that it sets such a high standard, it begs the question of how a production could ever top it. However, if Cast continue to stage such exhilarating, beautiful and culturally significant productions as this, their future is set to soar to even higher heights.
Runs until: 13th September