Kes is based on the 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave by British writer Barry Hines, telling the story of Billy Casper, a young working-class boy growing up in poverty, with an absent father, a neglectful mother, a bullying older brother and terrorizing classmates and teachers, when he finds a young kestrel which he trains with the help of a library book, providing him with a source of light and joy in an otherwise miserable reality. The book is widely known and loved, and was in 1969 made into the film Kes, which is considered by the British Film Institute to be one of the greatest British films ever made.
With this background in mind it was with high expectations that I walked into the theatre this evening. A quick glance around me as I sat down revealed that I was probably not the only one; most members of the audience were middle-aged, many of whom had their children with them, and I’m imagining these people grew up with and loved the story and now want to acquaint their children with it.
Lawrence Till’s stage adaptation, Kes, does not fall short of achieving expectations. It is an impressive production, led by director Nikolai Foster and beautifully designed by Matthew Wright. The set is simple but highly effective in reflecting the darkness and poverty Billy is growing up in and the coal mines he might be growing up to. Moreover, the cast consists of excellent actors. Stefan Butler is highly convincing as the teenager Billy and a real pleasure to watch. The only downside to his performance is that he is a pain to listen to. In his interpretation of Billy he gave him a voice which can best be described as irritating, to the extent that it often takes some focus away from his otherwise incredible acting. Butler is accompanied on the stage by other great actors, but what makes Foster’s casting truly special is that alongside these already established and highly skillful actors, he has invited schoolchildren from local schools to play Billy’s classmates.
To praise Nikolai Foster further, his scene transitions are a fluid and integral part of the show. Despite an incredible amount of props (including over a half-dozen school benches on the stage in one scene), and constant scene changes, one can see a risk of scene transitions becoming messy and confusing, yet even with stuff being constantly moved around transitions are really smooth, thanks to the movement choreography by Drew McOnie.
However, despite the high quality of McOnie’s choreography, the size of the role it is given in this play is also one of the play’s major limitations. In between some scenes Billy is dancing on the stage, and aside from adding nothing to the play, it takes thoughts to another Billy. Elliott. And it is here that the performance becomes messy and confusing.
The other major, and perhaps the biggest, limitation of this play, is that while this is meant to be an emotional story about a boy finding peace and joy in a world that has done little to treat him well, and we do feel sympathy with Billy, this is often overshadowed by all those things that make the production impressive and aesthetically beautiful to watch: dance, large amounts of props, many people on the stage at the same time. It is in the scenes where there are only actors and an imaginary bird on the stage (as in the scene where Billy is training the kestrel and his schoolteacher comes to watch, and the final scene where Billy is imagining a better life where his mother brings him “bread and butter and bacon and a big pot of tea” for breakfast) that the story truly connects with the audience, making us feel for Billy.