An adaptation by Robert Alan Evans of Barry Hines’ influential and iconic book, ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’, this production of Kes is an intimate two-hander performed in the temporary pop-up theatre space at Leeds Playhouse.

“Dirty, grey lives”, a line uttered in the play, is exactly the sentiment that Hines tries to portray in his book. His obsession with class and social injustices is palpable on the pages, and visually so in the celebrated film version by Ken Loach. This adaptation too seeks to encapsulate all of that on stage, and with surprising efficacy, given the modest creative decisions made by director Amy Leach to stage it, who is in familiar artistic ground as she first directed it back in 2016.

We all know the story of Kes (well, if you’re a Northerner): a working-class teenage antihero, Billy Casper, whose bleak and austere existence on a Barnsley estate is transformed by rearing a kestrel, and the happiness and sense of purpose this brings with it. It’s a simple enough story, but, at the time of its publication and subsequent adaptations, it really chimed a chord and reflected peoples’ attitudes about the way things were. Whilst times will always be tough (especially post-Brexit), I’m not sure whether another story that perpetuates an axiom like “it’s grim up North” really helps any more. Still, the production is as enjoyable as a two-hander can be – and probably more so, due to the exceptionally exquisite and physically versatile cast, whose stage chemistry only matures as the play progresses.

The very limited running time does certainly restrict the narration, however, and it undoubtedly informed some of the artistic choices; for instance, the nonlinear, almost fragmented development of scenes, which, for new theatregoers, I’m sure, would be a hard language to grasp – even I, at times, got confused which character Jack Lord was (so effortlessly) assuming. But the overriding pitfall for me was the lack of connection established and explored between the bird and Billy, which in turn would’ve helped to ground his character in the internal struggle that is so intense in the books; this version felt like you are an external onlooker to Billy and his relationships with others, rather than a focus on our emotional, intimate connection with his inner self – for me, this should be the driving force of the story.

Having said all this, there are moments where the drama soars, just like the kestrel, over the hills and peaks of the countryside, aptly reimagined as a haphazard array of mounting chairs that the actors so terrifyingly traipse across with artful ease. It remains to be seen how this one will fare, but it aint all grim, that’s for sure.

Tajpal Rathore

Cast & Crew:

Billy – Lucas Button

Man – Jack Lord

Director – Amy Leach

Associate Director – Martin Leonard

Assistant Director – Lucy Allan

Set & Costume – Max Johns

Lighting Designer – Chloe Kenward

Associate Sound Designer & Composer – John Biddle

Choreographer – Lucy Cullingford

Fight Director – Bethan Clark

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