Book by: Barry Hines
Adapted by: Robert Alan Evans
Director: Amy Leach
Reviewer: Rich Jevons
Even on the way into Leeds the taxi driver soon warmed to the memories, be it twenty years earlier, of reading Barry Hines’ quintessentially northern novel A Kestrel for A Knave and seeing the Ken Loach film Kes. As West Yorkshire Playhouse Artistic Director James Brining observes it is a tale of “social isolation, poverty and injustice” that traverses the three decades since its creation with the retention of relevance and essential importance.
Director Amy Leach is no stranger to West Yorkshire Playhouse, having successfully brought Little Sure Shot and A Night Before Christmas to the Leeds stage. This is the perfect piece for her, relying as it does on the audience’s imagination to conjure up the action in this fantastic two-hander. As with The Night Before Christmas, she is working with writer Robert Alan Evans who strips the text down to its essentials leaving a version that could only be done on a theatrical stage.
As 15-year-old Billy Casper, Dan Parr makes the role all his own with some great physicality while flying the bird and an astounding depiction of a panic attack near the very sad and moving denouement. For Billy, nurturing and training a kestrel gives him a sense of independence and freedom as well as responsibility and self-discipline that he so lacks in all other areas of his life, so well characterised by Parr.
Jack Lord as The Man takes on multiple roles including Billy’s mother, father, and brother, paper round boss, headmaster, and teachers. The latter groupis particularly sadistic and all ensnare him with a lack of opportunity and repressive environment. Lord does the character changes quite seamlessly and frequently to comic effect.
Their excellent performances combine with Max Johns’ design which is to die for; it is essentially a rickety wooden ramp with sixties detritus strewn around artfully but chaotically. Also noteworthy is Tom Mill’s sound design, that during the bird-flying scenes buildup to absolute silence as the bird descends.
This is the highlight of an awesome season at West Yorkshire Playhouse with a show that is both grippingly thrilling and also almost imbued with the sadness of its depiction of an underclass that is totally contemporary. With assured direction and immensely powerful performances, Kes really is just a great piece of storytelling that will have you not knowing whether to laugh or cry, but watch it you must.
Runs until 4 June 2016 | Image:Anthony Robling