Review: Kes (Leeds Playhouse)

Robert Alan Evans’s adaptation of Barry Hines’ original novel opens again in Leeds

Lucas Button as Billy and Jack Lord as Man in Kes
Lucas Button as Billy and Jack Lord as Man in Kes
© Anthony Robling

Amy Leach's production of Robert Alan Evans' adaptation of the iconic novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, was first staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016. Now, re-staged by Martin Leonard, it returns to Quarry Hill, in the Pop-Up Theatre that is so successfully filling the gap until the refurbished and re-named Leeds Playhouse opens.

It's always questionable with adaptations of novels whether the billing should be "by X adapted by Y" or "by Y, from the novel by X". This version of Kes opts for the former when the latter would be more accurate. Evans' play works well in the spirited and imaginative production by Leach and Leonard, but it operates at some distance from Barry Hines' original.

The problem for any adaptation of Kes, especially one staged in Yorkshire, is that there are already two authentic versions of what Ian McMillan described as "Barnsley's defining myth": the novel and Ken Loach's film. For two generations Kes has meant either Hines' uncompromising mix of poetry, earthy humour and all too convincing social commentary or Brian Glover running his blood to water as Mr Sugden (aka Bobby Charlton) and David Bradley's Billy swinging on the crossbar.

Perhaps wisely, Evans distances himself from this. His version has two characters: Billy and a man who is Billy grown older, also Billy's alter ego and most of the other characters in the novel. A Kestrel for a Knave is not a long novel, but to cover its plot in 70 minutes requires some smart work from Evans – and, especially, from Jack Lord as the Man – in merging and switching scenes and characters.

Revisiting his earlier self is a painful experience for the Man – lest we are unaware of this, sound designer Tom Mills supplies crashing discords – and, with rare exceptions, the humour of the original disappears. Instead we have some pretty impressive physical theatre. Max Johns has created an astonishing junkyard set, chairs reaching to the ceiling, bike inverted on filing cabinets, school gym benches sloped at ideal angle for sliding on – and Lord and Lucas Button (Billy) leap and climb and slide as naturally as walking.

This athleticism in itself makes it hard to see Billy as the emotionally deprived member of the underclass that Hines and Loach depicted. In addition Button, who plays the part with intelligence and subtlety, is almost too articulate and well-spoken. Lord (who also played the Man in 2016) is expert in changing character in a phrase or a stance, but is encouraged to take an over-dramatic line with those entertaining monsters, Mr Gryce and Mr Sugden.

This adaptation of Kes has much to recommend it. It retains much of Barry Hines' poetry and the use made of the striking set is frequently exciting. The miming of scenes with a non-existent kestrel is beautifully done. What is missing, oddly enough, is the drabness. You can, of course, take the boy out of Barnsley; perhaps Evans has also taken Barnsley out of the boy.