One of theatre’s special characteristics is the way in which it engages its audience through the power of imagination. It can transport us to new worlds, lands and time periods through a variety of ways, all in a raw, live environment. With this in mind, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has chosen to bring to life Barry Hines’s much-loved novel A Kestrel for a Knave, first published in 1968. Adapted by Robert Alan Evans and directed by Amy Leach, I looked forward to coming face to face with the classic tale.
Kes brings us into the bleak existence of Billy Casper (Dan Parr), a young boy destined for a life down the pit in the mining town of Sheffield. He starts becoming gradually suffocated by the miserable world around him, represented by characters like his unpleasant teachers and drink-loving mother. One day, however, everything changes for him when he finds a kestrel on a trip to the woods. Naming the bird Kes, he rears it, and his miserable existence is suddenly given meaning.
It’s easy to see why so many people hold Kes close to their hearts. It’s a narrative that seeks to inspire its readers, and in a theatrical context, inspire audiences. Evans has condensed it all into a short, hour-long two-man show, where Parr plays Billy and Jack Lord plays a man, assuming different characters in Billy’s life. Praise must certainly be given to both of these actors, who uphold the inspiring narrative that speeds along in a somewhat mesmerising fashion. This is mainly thanks to the slick manner in which they navigate Evans’s condensed narrative, with Lord skilfully switching between the different characters in Billy’s life and Parr conjuring up an emotive, energetic performance as the young boy.
Despite these skilful performances, there’s something about this adaptation of Kes that doesn’t sit right with me. I don’t know whether it’s just me personally, but I wasn’t completely clear on the relationship between Lord’s character and Billy. For me, it could possibly be the idea that Lord’s character is an older version of Billy, but this wasn’t clear in the dialogue and physical relationships on stage.
I’d argue that the real star of this production has to be Max Johns’s set design, which oozes the character of the industrial-esque world that the characters inhabit. With lots of furniture and props littered across the Courtyard Theatre’s stage, Johns has created a large open space for the performers to navigate and tell their story in. They traverse the landscape of school chairs and benches, nostalgic relics of a time harking back to the days of being a youngster, with confidence and finesse.
While the set design is visually pleasing and the actors’ performances well-considered, there’s one last thing about this adaptation of Kes that again doesn’t sit right. The rapid transitions between events in the narrative and its occasional shifts into a non-chronological sequence of these events soon get repetitive. The whole show feels like it’s treading along on one single trajectory, with a lack of depth and detail making everything feel a bit stunted and disengaging.
This production of Kes is a bit of a mixed one, and doesn’t quite feel like it’s there yet. I can see what director Leach is trying to do with it, but something here isn’t hitting the mark. Perhaps it’s the general lack of atmosphere throughout the piece, or the unclear nature of the narrative structure of the adaptation. There are parts of this production that do make it, however, a highly watchable piece of theatre.
Kes is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 4 June. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website. Photo: Anthony Roblin