Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave has been adapted again for the stage by Lawrence Till, who uses the shortened title of Kes adopted for Ken Loach’s classic film version. Like the book and film, this new production - directed by the North Yorkshire-raised Nikolai Foster - captures a believable insight into what it was like growing up in the northern bleakness of Barnsley during the late 1960s.
Central character Billy Casper’s determination to escape the mundane reality of his life through a besotted devotion to training a kestrel chick is imaginatively interpreted. Matthew Wright’s set includes a swooping floor depicting an old, filthy rotten school gymnasium while a tall structure stage left is the entrance to Billy’s far-from-happy home.
Dimmed lighting is used throughout to emphasise the bleakness of Billy’s surroundings. Cross stage movement, including perfectly organised cast members parading old battered school desks during scene changes, also plays an important part in the storytelling, and Foster imaginatively creates a double image of Billy for the iconic scenes in which he’s running through the south Yorkshire fields training his kestrel friend.
Dressed in the same dull clothing, grey trousers and unkempt fading blue jacket, Oliver Watton has been choreographed by Drew Mconie to shadow alongside more static movement of Stefan Butler, who plays Billy, effectively bringing out aspects of freedom through body shape and language.
The vulnerability of Billy is brought out in effectively in Butler’s performance, and the young actor is never off stage. He holds interest from the moment he begins talking about the eponymous bird. Those hoping to see a real kestrel on stage, however, will be disappointed. Foster has emphasised his desire to focus the story on a day in the life of Billy, and he stays true to his word.
Other notable performances come from Oliver Farnworth as Billy’s resentful, drunken, gambling half-brother Jud. He’s instantly dislikeable. David Crellin as the Manchester United supporting football coach brings issues of bullying glaringly to the forefront, while Mike Burnside as Mr Gryce is the headteacher from hell.
As tension builds, the climax of Billy’s heartbreak is met with a dead silence from the audience - a poignant climax to a powerful production.