Reviews, Stage

Kes at Derby Theatre

Kes Production Photography © Robert Day

Kes, based on the book A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, and made famous by a Ken Loach film adaptation, is Derby Theatre’s second homegrown production under the stewardship of Creative Director Sarah Brigham. The first was the raucous – and excellent – Cooking with Elvis, but could Derby theatre follow it up and avoid the sophomore slump?

Though named Kes, the play is about a boy named Billy Casper, living in Yorkshire in the ’60s, nearing the end of his time at school. Billy suffers from a difficult home life, his father having walked out on his family long ago. With an unsupportive environment at home Billy’s isolation is compounded by a school system that doesn’t understand him, and no real friends to support him. Billy’s main memory of his absent father is being thrown into the air and safely caught in his father’s arms, a memory he often returns to in his lowest moments. With his father gone, Billy is afraid to push himself to succeed, because there is no-one left to catch him. Despite all this a relationship with a Kestrel provides a glimmer of hope for Billy’s future.

A lot of faith is placed on Sam Jackson (previously seen in TV’s Skins), who plays Billy, and he does an excellent job. He is unrestrained and exuberant when alone, acting out scenes from Dandy comics, or running through the countryside. But the majority of the time, at home and at school, he is surly and unresponsive to a society around him which is generally uncaring, and often cruel. It is Billy’s demeanour and not his words that most effectively communicate the effect the bird has on him, when his enthusiasm begins to come through around other people. Some scenes featured wonderfully nuanced acting – one scene in a classroom ends with Billy noticeably straightening with pride and confidence, after a supportive English teacher coaxes him to talk about Kes in front of the class.

Despite the efforts of the teacher to support Billy’s blossoming confidence through Kes, this is not a play with a happy ending. A confrontation between Billy and his brother Jed seems inevitable. While the absence of a father figure has led Billy to withdraw, Jed has gone the other way, becoming the macho, tyrannical man of the house, lording it not only over Billy but his mother too. It’s also a good performance, belligerent and familiar, and he gets top marks for some truly excellent drunken staggering.

There are some other stand-out supporting roles; Thomas Pickles and John Holt-Roberts as two of Billy’s fellow students, an imaginative clown and a bully respectively, but both put in rounded and natural performances. You’re almost certain to see old schoolmates of your own in them, and the clown in particular brings some welcome light relief.

It’s also worth noting that the rest of the schoolchildren are played by local kids, it’s fantastically appropriate that a play about a lack of opportunities gives plenty of them itself. You could tell they were thrilled to be involved, and one of the girls in particular, Danielle Murden did well, nervously reading a bible passage in a school assembly.

The actual staging of the play is very well done, with impressionistic slivers of locations lowered down from the ceiling or shifted on from the side when needs be, turning the wide open space of the stage – when for instance Billy’s out in the countryside looking for Kes – into smaller spaces, like the Casper family home. Projections on the back screen, like fields of corn, or the metal constructs above the mines, give a real sense of place in a simple but visually appealing way. The music, apparently an original score, was memorable, if oddly intense at times if used to transition from scenes ending on lighter notes than others.

While the individual elements of the play are strong, there were a few issues which I felt held it back.

I was looking forward to seeing how the production tackled portraying the bird. A stuffed toy glued to Billy’s wrist? An actual real-life trained kestrel, swooping above the audience? Or perhaps just keep it simple by having a man in a bird costume. While those are all obviously great ideas, ultimately the production takes a more subtle tack. The eponymous bird is never seen, save for some brief ghostly projections, filling the back screen of the stage, an enormous apparition gracefully soaring over Billy Casper below, its glorious scale an apt if simple visual metaphor.

However without a physical representation of the bird, the audience is asked to invest in it solely from dialogue about it. While keeping it as something abstract emphasises its symbolic importance it is strange for it to have no physical presence at all. As a result though you can clearly see the impact Kes has on Billy it makes little impact on the audience. Unfortunately at times the reliance on monologues to describe the bird means that sometimes they begin to drag, and there is some other dialogue that could do with paring down to be snappier.

From Matt’s interview with the actors it seems like a hopeful feel was intended, but what hope there is is snuffed out, and Billy’s world remains bleak come the end of the play; the emphasis on hope doesn’t really come through. Not having read the book or seen the film, I can’t compare the play with either, but some who have more familiarity with the story suggested that though the world in the play is bleak, and the characters uncaring, the cruelty shown by the adults around Billy was not as vicious as in other tellings of the story; the headmaster in particular seemed old fashioned and out of touch rather than sadistic. As a result Billy’s misery and hope are perhaps not shown in as sharp relief.

Despite those few misgivings, I can recommend going to see Kes. It isn’t as brilliant as Cooking with Elvis was, but it is still a solid production and shows that Derby Theatre can and hopefully will produce quality productions of its own on an ongoing basis. The central performance by Sam Jackson is excellent and the supporting roles are good too. Go along and support Derby Theatre! Kes is running until the 5th of October and you can get tickets here. Other upcoming events include From Scratch on October 4th, and Translunar Paradise on October 5th, with the next ‘big’ production an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Go Back for Murder from October 8th.

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