How did you get into acting?
I was kind of thrown into it and it all came around so fast. I always wanted to be a footballer when I was at school, but I wasn’t very good to be honest. My best friend at the time was having drama lessons at a local theatre school and he had an agent. So I was asking him about his acting one day when he turned round to me and asked me if I wanted to go along to one of his drama lessons and see what it was like. I thought “why not?” and the next thing I knew I was having lessons every week and soon got myself an agent too. The next thing I knew, I was studying drama at college and found myself with a place at drama school. I suddenly realised that acting was something I loved and really wanted to be a part of.
What attracted you to the play Kes?
Like most people at school, I studied the original book A Kestrel for a Knave and remember watching the film. I don’t think I really appreciated it back then, but most recently I bought the book and film together and I fell in love with it. It is such a sad story, and you really feel for the character of Billy. I think I read the book in a couple of hours as I didn’t want to put it down. And then there is the film, which is now quite a cult classic. I think I have watched it about four times recently and it never gets old. I think everything about it is brilliant, from the acting to the direction, to the photography. So when I heard that the Coliseum was putting it on to open their new season, I immediately wanted to get on board.
Many people will remember Billy Casper from the famous film version, directed by Ken Loach. How does your Billy differ from him?
This is one of the hardest things for actors, when you play a character from a film as famous as Kes. Everyone who has seen it has that particular image of Billy in their minds, so sometimes people expect your performance to be on par with the original. For me, it is about bringing something new to the character that audiences might not have seen before. Don’t get me wrong, David Bradley was amazing. I wouldn’t necessarily say that my Billy ‘differs’ from the original, as it is still the same Billy that was written in the book by Barry Hines. It is just my own interpretation of him. I have had different experiences in life to other actors that will one day play the same role; therefore it is those experiences that influence my Billy.
The Kestrel is iconic part of the book and the film. How do you get round the fact that you cannot have a live bird on stage?
It is actually fairly easy. In the foreword to the script, Barry Hines says: “Kes is about education not falconry. It’s a story about a boy not a bird. You don’t have to see the kestrel to appreciate Billy’s troubles. His problems are concerned with family and school. The kestrel is a symbol of Billy’s potential. Through the hawk we see what he is capable of, and this element of the play works just as strongly in the imagination as if seen”. A lot of people have asked me how we are doing the bird, and I always tell them what I read because it’s true. You would be surprised what the imagination is capable of, and after all, isn’t that what theatre is about?
What do you think makes Billy so likeable?
I like the fact that he gets into trouble without looking for it. He just seems to find himself in the wrong situations, which we have all experienced at some point in our childhood. When it comes to the kestrel, we see just how caring and loving Billy can be towards someone or something he adores. But school, and most importantly his family, stop him from being able to express himself in a way that he is capable of. There are a couple of scenes in this play when Billy is asked to talk about the bird, and it is in these scenes that he becomes the real Billy Casper. His knowledge and understanding of falconry, and also his pride at being able to train a wild bird really does make him happy. It is these touching moments that I really like about him, as they are so few and far between.
Why do you enjoy performing at the Coliseum?
It is just down the road from where I was brought up, in Bolton, so it feels like home to me. I love the North, especially the theatre scene up here. Once you have done a few plays up here you start to get to know other actors in the business and it becomes like a family. Everybody is really supportive of their fellow actors’ work, which is not always commonplace in London for example. The West End is a great achievement for this country, but people forget that there are exceptional theatres producing brilliant work all over the country, and the Oldham Coliseum is one of those. I also have to mention the audiences that come to the Coliseum. I have never known a theatre to have such a strong relationship with the surrounding community, and respect flows in both directions. And because of this, the audiences here are some of the most supportive audiences you will find.
How would you describe Kes to someone who is not familiar with it?
I would say it’s about a neglected and misunderstood boy who is failed by society and detached from the world, but finds solace in a Kestrel, which he decides to keep as a pet. It is a story of escapism from the mundane reality of everyday life and about discovering your true identity; finding a peace and purpose to life that others cannot understand.
What are your plans following this production?
Firstly, I think a week away somewhere hot is on the cards! Then I have been asked to be part of the pantomime at the Nottingham Playhouse this Christmas, playing the role of Billy Goose in Mother Goose. It is written and directed by my good friend Kenneth Alan Taylor, who I met in the last play I did here at the Coliseum which was The Road to Nab End. There is also something happening with a new BBC sit com, but I can’t really say anything about that at the moment!
Adam Barlow was speaking to Glenn Meads
Kes is at the Oldham Coliseum from 3 - 25 Sept. For more information, please visit their website.